The prolonged COVID-19 crisis: uncertainties and notions of normality

My new book COVID Societies: Theorising the Coronavirus Crisis will be published by Routledge in April. Here’s an edited excerpt from the Conclusion chapter, where I reflect on COVID futures.

We may not all currently ‘live in the kingdom of the ill’, as Sontag (1990, p. 3) described experiencing a cancer diagnosis, but we are all now living in the kingdom of COVID. Even if our individual fleshy bodies have not yet been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or perished from COVID, our bodies politic and our more-than-human worlds have borne the blows and bear the scars of the outbreak. This book has demonstrated the value of applying different sociocultural theoretical perspectives in explaining and understanding COVID societies. I have shown that we need theory more than ever. Indeed, we need a diverse range of theories that are able to elucidate the multiple, dynamic and intertwined dimensions of the continuing COVID crisis.

In the process of demonstrating how sociocultural theories can offer valuable conceptual insights into the complexities of the COVID-19 crisis, I have also provided an account of what it has been like to live through the first year and a half of this catastrophe across the world and the impacts the pandemic has wrought on social relationships and identities. Throughout the book, a series of intertwined threads have crossed back and forth between the macropolitical and micropolitical dimensions of COVID societies: contagion, death, risk, threat, uncertainty, fear, social inequalities, stigma, blame and power relations. Overarching these threads are five complementary themes: the historicity of COVID societies; the tension between local specificities and globalising forces; the control and management of human bodies; the boundary between Self and Other; and the continuously changing sociomaterial environments in which the world is living with and through the shocks of the COVID crisis. In moving back and forth between the minutiae of people’s experiences of the COVID crisis and large-scale socioeconomic dimensions, between mundane practices and extreme levels of social disruption, disease and death, the book shows how interrelated individuals’ lives are with the more-than-human relationships of which they are inextricably a part. Across the world, across a multitude of diverse cultures and histories, people are suffering. They are vulnerable: to anxiety, fear, despair and insecurity about their future as well as poverty, ill-health and death.

… COVID societies call into question some long-established assumptions and return us in some ways to pre-Enlightenment times, when fate appeared to rule humans’ lives. Together with becoming attuned to the other deep crises facing the planet – chief among them climate change and global warming – the COVID crisis has shaken core beliefs about the ability to control our destinies. At this point in the pandemic, people are reeling from the apparent lack of success that even the most powerful and wealthy nations have had in containing and managing its effects. Human societies have always faced crises and catastrophes, including recurring pandemics involving great misery, confinement and loss of life. These events have always inspired affective feelings of fear, anxiety and dread. They shake people’s sense of safety and security and make them feel that their world has suddenly become an uncertain and unpredictable place. However, the COVID pandemic is the first truly global crisis since World War 2. For people living in disadvantaged, chaotic and dangerous situations or parts of the world, crisis is endemic rather than episodic: they are constantly in a state of fear and uncertainty, never knowing how their lives can be improved. What is remarkable about the current COVID crisis is that people in the Global North now experiencing a prolonged crisis. Even for privileged social groups and high-income countries, the COVID crisis is continuing for far longer and has far broader impacts than previous crises or emergencies they have faced in their lifetimes. The current catastrophe challenges their norms and expectations about the security and safety of life and their futures and the control they can exert over their lives. COVID changed everything extremely quickly, but its impacts and dangers have not been easily resolved.

The major question for the future of the post-COVID world is ‘What will “normality” look like?’ once the crisis has passed or at least been dampened somewhat. It is difficult to determine yet whether the COVID crisis will lead to profound social and political changes; and if so, where in the world these transformations may occur. As I write, the crisis is continuing, and in some places, worsening. Uncertainties are proliferating rather than subsiding. The crisis has not yet become normalised or endemic. Even as we hope that things are getting better, we are still experiencing surges and emergencies, situations where apparent control has turned to sudden disorder. We do not know yet what the world will look like once COVID is better controlled. While hope was initially invested in the modern science expertise that developed and tested effective vaccines against COVID in record time, the continuing emergence of new, more infectious and deadly variants, together with breakdowns in the delivery of the vaccines have dented the initial optimism.

Governments and citizens just want everything to be over and to ‘get back to normal life’. Many officials and politicians have made continual reference to the ‘COVID normal’ or ‘new normal’ state of affairs that they hope will eventuate. This goal, however, is apparently becoming less and less achievable. Instead, attempts to relax restrictions and becoming complacent about the threat posed by SARS-CoV-2 had time and time again led to loss of control over the virus. These terms assume a transformed kind of ‘normal’: one that will be marked forever by the events of the COVID disaster. It implies a new epoch in how everyday lives will be experienced post-COVID, potentially involving such practices as heightened awareness of personal hygiene measures to prevent infectious disease, less international air travel, working from home more often for those whose occupations allow it, the offering of more study online options, and an emptying out of the city and a population shift beyond the urban centres as a result.

Some health experts have suggested that the new normal may involve ‘learning to live with COVID-19’ by being alert to continued outbreaks, seeking regular booster vaccinations to counter the regular emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants, self-isolating when exposed to the virus and engaging in other precautionary measures. They have speculated that rather than the COVID crisis ‘ending’, it will become endemic: a recurring threat like seasonal influenza. Such statements often lack nuance, however. They fail to recognise that ‘living with COVID’ will inevitably be a far better experience for the already privileged people who have been fully vaccinated, are in good health with excellent access to quality healthcare services and are able to maintain their levels of income during periods of stay-at-home or self-isolation restrictions. As societies ‘open up’, people living in conditions of socioeconomic disadvantage and social groups and populations who have been unable to access vaccinations will be facing a much higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID as well as even greater levels of debt, poverty or homelessness.

Beyond these practices, the ‘new normal’ phrase refers to an affective state of being. It suggests that people will begin to feel a sense of ‘normality’ again, which in turn is imbricated with feelings of hope, optimism, reassurance and wellbeing as compared with the affective states of anxiety, fear, powerlessness and uncertainty that have thus far characterised experiences of the COVID crisis for so many people. These kinds of pronouncements assume that most people are yearning for ‘normality’. However, as cultural commentators and critics have frequently contended, normality in the pre-COVID world was experienced by many people as a state of entrenched socioeconomic disadvantage and marginalisation. Others, even those who were privileged, were struggling with prevailing feelings of dread and hopelessness about how pre-existing crises such as food insecurity, entrenched violence against women and climate change were affecting not only humans but all aspects of the planet. These people want a new normal that is very different from the ‘old normal’. This imaginary of a ‘better new normal’ envisages a world where the neoliberal emphasis on ‘small government’ is wound back, the massive divides between the poor and the wealthy have been reduced, there is alleviation of poverty, the creation of stable employment opportunities and universal access to good quality and safe housing and healthcare. This vision looks beyond remediating the impact of the current COVID catastrophe to hoping that governments and global agencies would be making serious efforts to address the environmental impacts of climate change and where preparations and investments for the continuing fight against further infectious disease outbreaks have been put in place.

Photo credits: Author

New book now out – The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives

This edited collection (with co-editor Karen Willis) is now published (see details on the Routledge website and on Amazon). The chapter abstracts are below. For a companion volume, see my co-authored book The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociomaterial Analysis, also now out.

Part 1: Introduction

1.  COVID society: introduction to the book 

Deborah Lupton and Karen Willis

In this introductory chapter, we make an argument for why contemporary social worlds can be now characterised as ‘COVID society’. We outline the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis and its global effects. The chapter offers an account of the macro- and micro-political dimensions of the COVID crisis and draws out and discusses the key themes emerging across the book’s chapters. We discuss the major findings and perspectives offered by the contributors and how they are employed to analyse the impacts and experiential dimensions of the crisis from a social perspective.

 2.      Contextualising COVID-19: sociocultural perspectives on contagion

Deborah Lupton

To fully understand the sociocultural implications of the COVID-19 crisis, it is important to be aware of the substantial body of research in sociology, anthropology, history, cultural geography and media studies on previous major infectious disease outbreaks. This chapter ‘sets the scene’ by providing this context with an overview of the relevant literature, with reference to emerging and new infectious diseases over the past century as Spanish influenza, HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, Ebola virus and Zika virus. The perspectives offered by social histories, political economy perspectives, social constructionism, Foucauldian theory, risk theory, postcolonial and sociomaterial approaches are explained and examples of research using these approaches are provided. 

Part II: Space, the Body and Mobilities

 3. Moving target, moving parts: the multiple mobilities of the COVID-19 pandemic

 Nicola Burns, Luca Follis, Karolina Follis and Janine Morley

This chapter considers the contributions of the mobilities paradigm to the sociological understanding the COVID-19 pandemic. Mobilities scholarship offers a multi-scalar framework that spans from movement at the molecular level to the movement of bodies and the local, national and supranational travel of humans and non-humans. Its core insight has been the recognition that mobilities are socially patterned, hierarchical and co-exist with immobilities, thereby generating and reproducing inequalities. The chapter focuses on the United Kingdom government response to the coronavirus pandemic, emphasising the multi-scalar effects of state intervention and the implications for different groups in society, which remain largely unaccounted for. We ask: who (and what) moves and does not move in this crisis? We work through the local, meso and macro level to show how the public health imperative to immobilise the disease vector (the body) disrupts ordinary patterns of mobility that have become central to globalised economies. The chapter argues that viewing the COVID-19 pandemic through the prism of mobilities illuminates not just the long-term effects of this crisis on national health systems but also highlights the vulnerability of static and bounded health systems in a world where everything else is in movement.

4. Physical activity and bodily boundaries in times of pandemic

Holly Thorpe, Julie Brice and Marianne Clark

With millions of people around the world spending weeks and months in quarantine, new questions emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic about the opportunities, benefits, and risks of physical activity. Health organizations, governments and the media alike advocated the importance of physical activity for health and wellbeing. While exercise was being encouraged, options for engagement were increasingly constrained. With gyms, fitness studios, recreational centres, and parks and outdoor facilities closed, many created new fitness rhythms and routines. In this chapter we draw upon feminist new materialist theory, and particularly the work of Karen Barad, to critically explore new questions about the risks of physically active bodies and the ‘trails’ of contagion that they may disperse in and through the ebbs and flows of the natural (i.e., air, wind) and built (i.e., gym and fitness studios) environment. Drawing upon Barad’s conceptualization of bodily boundaries, we explore new ethical considerations and concerns of aerosol particles (i.e., breath) and bodily secretions (i.e., sweat). In so doing, we diffractively read media releases, scientific reports, and public commentaries through our own embodied experiences of physical activity. Ultimately this chapter offers a critical and creative commentary on the new noticings of bodily boundaries in times of pandemic where the body—any and every body—was a site of possible contagion.

 5. City flows during pandemics: zooming in on windows

Olimpia Mosteanu

 In this chapter, I reflect on a series of photographs of windows taken in different cities around the world before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. I use these photographs to prompt an analysis of urban flows at a time when our cities have come to a halt. Windows are caught up in a series of dichotomies that posit what is inside against the outside, the intimate against the public, home against street, stability against unpredictability, among others. The chapter explores some of the ways in which windows not only mediate our interactions with the world around but also actively participate in our everyday lives, especially at the current moment. Given the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, windows have taken on an even more important role in supporting dwellers’ quality of life and wellbeing. Working with and against the digital archive I have compiled, the chapter considers how these photographs gesture towards the layered experiences of space and place, as well as the presence and absence of affect and memory. I conclude by discussing how this type of photographic inquiry benefits qualitative research focused on the lived experience of place at a time when in-person methods are no longer an option.  

6. The politics of touch-based help for visually impaired persons during the coronavirus pandemic: an autoethnographic account

Heidi Lourens

 In the context of disability, the provision of help carries within it the potential for troublesome psychological and relational dimensions. Through an evocative autoethnography, I, as a blind person, aim to argue that help may become even more complicated for visually impaired persons during the Coronavirus pandemic. Since visually impaired persons often rely on help in the form of physical touch (for example when a sighted person guides them), help currently contains more than psychological dimensions – it also carries within it the very real potential for contracting a potential life-threatening illness. This vulnerable position, I will demonstrate, comes with its own set of psychological ramifications such as the fear of often much-needed or unsolicited touch. I will argue that what makes these feelings of vulnerability and anxiety even more acute, is the limits to freedom of choice for both help-receiver and help-recipient. I conclude that, during this health crisis, it is important to apply the approach of the relational ethics of care. Only through mutual communication, authentic communication and active engagement will disabled and nondisabled persons be able to recognise the unique context and needs of one another.

Part III: Intimacies, Socialities and Temporalities

7.  #DatingWhileDistancing: dating apps as digital health technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic 

David Myles, Stefanie Duguay and Christopher Dietzel

The physical distancing measures implemented globally by public health authorities have challenged the operating models of dating apps, which typically rely on physical proximity to foster intimate relationships. This chapter critically examines the steps taken by 16 dating apps in response to COVID-19 through an analysis of in-app messages, new features, social media posts, and press releases. Our findings suggest that dating apps assume the role of unconventional corporate digital health technologies. They do so first through interventions in user behaviour, circulating messages about maintaining physical distance while mobilising health resources to track and discourage virus transmission. Secondly, they give meaning to the use of dating apps during a time of physical distancing by encouraging users to adopt online “virtual” dating approaches. This is accomplished by replacing negative perceptions of online dating with notions of virtual dating as romantic or sexy while also introducing features and norms to define appropriate virtual dating behaviour. Overall, our analysis illustrates how corporate actors participate in online health promotion during times of crisis and, specifically, how the matchmaking industry can affect sexual and public health by reshaping contemporary dating cultures.

8. ‘Unhome’ sweet home: the construction of new normalities in Italy during COVID-19 

Veronica Moretti and Antonio Maturo

Everyday life provides that reservoir of meanings which allows us to make sense of reality. It is the ‘taken-for-granted’ dimension of our existence. With this in mind, in this chapter we investigate the ‘new normalities’ of life in lockdown. We conducted 20 in-depth interviews with a population of childless, highly educated young adults living in Northern Italy. Interviewees report mixed feelings and experiences associated with being locked in their homes: cosiness alongside restriction; the freedom to call friends combined with forced physical isolation; the need to do work in places usually devoted to relaxing. Being forced to stay at home is also a cognitively ambiguous situation, in which people feel themselves to be ‘in-waiting’. In practical terms, the interviewees coped with this uncertainty by creating and adhering to rigid routines and new habits. We analyse the interviewees’ ‘definition of their situation’ in terms of the Freudian concept of the Unhemlich (the uncanny, but also the ‘unhomely’). The uncanny refers to the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar.  It describes situations where something familiar appears in an unsettling context. Our hope is that this analysis will inform future research on the effects of the lockdown on mental health.

9.  Queer and crip temporalities during COVID-19: sexual practices, risk and responsibility

Ryan Thorneycroft and Lucy Nicholas

This chapter interrogates sexual practices occurring during COVID-19 to imagine alternative (crip and queer) futures. Recognising that many people continue to engage in (casual) sex, we consider what the politics of responsibility are during this pandemic. We suggest that queer sex sits at the intersections of crip/queer practice, and we move to contextualise our current moment through the lens of crip/queer times. Understanding our moment through crip/queer times provides the opportunity to open up new sexual cultures and to diversify the range of practices and pleasures to all people. In the place of queer casual sex, we introduce forms of (crip/queer) isolation sex as an efficacious and ethical alternative, and in so doing, work to identify new forms of cultures and possibilities available during and after the COVID pandemic. To engage in ethical forms of queer isolation sex at this historical juncture is to protect crip and older bodies from COVID, and this means the actors are engaging in efficacious crip/queer sexual practices. Broadening rather than narrowing what we understand to be sexual practices opens up new forms of cultures and possibilities available during and after COVID. In turn this moment allows for an imagining of broader, alternative, and responsible socialites informed by crip and queer positionalities that do not collapse back into an individualistic normativity once the crisis is over.

10.  Isol-AID, Art and Wellbeing: Posthuman Community Amidst COVID-19

Marissa Willcox, Anna Hickey-Moody and Anne Harris

In the isolating times of COVID-19, digital live streaming has been a key means through which artists connect with their audiences/community and audience members access live art and music. With performances mediated through digital live stream, artists and audience members alike are experimenting with strategies for connection, and indeed, for survival. This reconfiguration of sociality, of the liveness of community, threatens to endure beyond the pandemic. The Instagram Live music festival ‘Isol-AID’, which we examine as a case study in this chapter, prompts a discussion around arts accessibility as a measure of public health and wellbeing. Building on literature about social prescribing, we suggest that Instagram Live engages therapeutic forms of arts practice, and as such, could be offered as a new digital health resource. Using a critical posthumanist perspective, we think-through Instagram Live and streamed performance as posthuman assemblages to highlight the importance of non-human actants (such as phones, wifi, colours, sounds) in the production of the feeling of community, which is a social determinant of health. These creative methods of expression and connection encourage discussion around the importance of the arts in community health and wellbeing, a conversation that could not be more relevant than in the socially isolated world that is, this global pandemic.

Part IV: Healthcare Practices and Systems

11. Strange times in Ireland: death and the meaning of loss under COVID-19

Jo Murphy-Lawless

David Harvey writes of ‘time-space compression’ to describe the globalised world of untrammelled flows of goods and services. Contemporary Ireland has relied on these capital flows in the shape of massive foreign direct investment and has in turn been reshaped by contemporary modes of global consumer capitalism. Large-scale emigration characterising Irish society since the mid-nineteenth century has been matched in recent decades by a second kind of international travel whereby Irish people savour life as global consumers.  COVID-19, a potent disrupter, is also a beneficiary of our globalised economy. It swiftly rendered everyday life unrecognisable. Among the profoundly stressful consequences of COVID-19 for Ireland is how we were forced to do death differently. COVID-19 has made painfully visible the social and economic contradictions of contemporary Ireland and may yet spur us to reconsider how we participate in the global game.

12. Between an ethics of care and scientific uncertainty: dilemmas of general practitioners in Marseille

Romain Lutaud, Jeremy Ward, Gaëtan Gentile and Pierre Verger

While COVID-19 continues to progress worldwide, the French situation is particularly affected by a lack of masks, tests and, as everywhere else, by the lack of clinically validated therapeutic options. The French government has made the choice of confinement and remote monitoring of patients, with recourse to the healthcare system only when signs of worsening appear (hospitalisation). But in Marseille, a hospital-research centre (IHU, led by Pr. Raoult) decided to apply the doctrine of ‘test and treat’ using chloroquine. This chapter explores the effects of this decision on local doctors’ practices relative to covid-19. We will show the dilemmas faced by doctors: how they navigate the controversy over chloroquine as well as negotiate with their patients’ demand for testing and treatment with chloroquine. This chapter constitutes a first attempt at bringing together the results of a wider research project involving analysis several surveys and interviews conducted among GPs in Marseille and 1200 GPs in France, an analysis of the coverage of the hydroxychloroquine debate in the French national press and surveys conducted among representative samples of the French population. It will also draw on one of the authors’ experience of being a general practitioner in Marseille.

13.  Post-pandemic routes in the context of Latin countries: the impact of COVID-19 in Italy and Spain

Anna Sendra, Jordi Farré , Alessandro Lovari and Linda Lombi

This chapter examines the reasons behind the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Italy and Spain, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Despite adopting strict measures of lockdown, both countries endured two of the highest infection and mortality rates of COVID in Europe. In this context, in addition to considering political, technological and economic factors, this critical reflection explores how the particularities of the Latin lifestyle may have influenced the management of the crisis in Italy and Spain. Although the public agenda in both countries has focused on discussing the unequal distribution of resources, especially in terms of health reforms and digital competencies, this chapter concludes suggesting that the design of future interventions should also contemplate the effect of sociocultural factors in the perception and evaluation of risks.

14. Risky work: providing healthcare in the age of COVID-19

Karen Willis and Natasha Smallwood

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis has been profound across all dimensions of social life; and has been profoundly evident in the rapid changes to work. Alongside people losing jobs in service and related industries as countries imposed restrictions on movement and activity, workers in many industries have faced change in the way work is undertaken, and in their exposure to risks. Healthcare work is a case example of rapid occupational change with concerns that such changes have negative psychosocial effects on the workforce, as they grapple with rapid organisational change, increased anxiety and stress, and concern for patient care. In this chapter, we describe healthcare workers’ experiences of the psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on their work. We draw on preliminary findings from free text data from a survey of over 9,000 health care workers in Australia to illustrate issues related to workplace disruption, healthcare delivery challenges, and concerns of being simultaneously at risk and risky which necessitate the development of new strategies to manage work, home and family.

Part V: Marginalisation and Discrimination

15. The plight of the parent-citizen? Examples of resisting (self-)responsibilisation and stigmatisation by Dutch Muslim parents and organisations during the COVID-19 crisis

Alex Schenkels, Sakina Loukili and Paul Mutsaers

On 15 March 2020, the Dutch government announced the temporary closure of schools, kindergartens and houses of prayer in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which de facto further responsibilised parents in areas such as home-schooling and home-working. This decision exposed an ideology of intensive parenting (IP) that has mostly remained hidden and undisputed. At the same time, the outbreak exacerbated racism and stigma, intensifying the (parental) challenges for Muslim families. This chapter explores if the boundaries of this ideology have been reached due to the COVID crisis. The first part focuses on education and ways in which Muslim parents display and (eventually) resist ‘self-responsibilising reflexes’. Part two addresses the stigmatisation of Muslims and the (re)actions by Islam-inspired political organisation NIDA. Our findings suggest that while parenting seemed to hyper intensify during the first months of the pandemic, precisely this process led to parents’ resistance. Muslim organisations strengthened resistance by serving as an ‘extended family’, which took form in spiritual and pedagogical guidance as well as in mitigating the effects of racism against Muslim families. Such mitigation undermines IP’s ideal of the ‘parent-citizen’ who is to solve societal problems in the private sphere.

 16.  Anti-Asian racism, xenophobia and Asian American health during COVID-19

Aggie J. Yellow Horse

 As COVID-19 crisis emerged in the USA, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia rhetoric as well as reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans began to rise. Understanding how such a rapid increase in racist and xenophobic incidences may affect Asian Americans’ physical, mental and social health is important, as racism and xenophobia are fundamental causes of inequalities in health in general and for Asian Americans in particular. Furthermore, this understanding is critical for reducing and eliminating the barriers for Asian Americans seeking medical help during the coronavirus pandemic, which is important not only for Asian Americans’ health, but for the total US population. Thus far, research on the health implications of the social, cultural and political dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic on Asian Americans are limited, due to the conceptual and methodological challenges in studying health and health disparities among Asian Americans. Drawing from histories of structural racism against Asian Americans through exclusionary immigration policies, and post-1965 racial policies that contributed to the emergence of Asian American stereotypes as the Model Minority and perpetual foreigners, this chapter discusses the sociohistorical contexts in which Asian Americans have been invisible in sociology of health research. It discusses the importance of examining the roles of racism and xenophobia on Asian American’s health in a broader contexts of the parallel pandemics of COVID-19 and racism; and provides suggestions for future research and policy advocacy.

17. Ageism, risk, health and the body in COVID-19 times

Peta S. Cook, Cassie Curryer, Susan Banks, Barbara Barbosa Neves, Maho Omori, Annetta H. Mallon and Jack Lam

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare societal discourses regarding age differences and stereotypes. Using sociological approaches to risk and drawing on some examples from the Australian online news media, we illustrate how risk management approaches and risk uncertainties in response to the coronavirus, have homogenised younger and older peoples and widely positioned them in a binary generational conflict of ‘risky’ and ‘at risk’. Younger people are frequently framed as healthy, active agents: they are engaging in risky behaviours that endanger their health and that of others. In contrast, older people have been typically cast as passive and at risk: ‘the elderly’ and ‘the vulnerable elderly’. In extreme cases, older people have also been framed as burdensome and worthless. In this chapter, we examine how age was framed or ‘staged’ during COVID-19 to illustrate how ageist language and dichotomous pandemic framings — grounded on blame and shame — add to social divisions and ‘othering’, shape risk management strategies, and cloud public health messaging on risk, viral spread, and physical distancing measures.

Living with COVID-19 in Australia: the first year in photos

COVID novelty socks for sale, Inner South Canberra (December 2020)

As a social researcher who has specialised in writing about medicine and health for decades, I have engaged in many COVID-19-related projects this year. These include writing an initial agenda for social research on COVID and some commentary on this blog (here and here), recording some talks (here), coordinating a registry of Australian social research on COVID, putting together a topical map of COVID social research, publishing two articles in The Conversation (here and here) and developing the open access resource Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic document.

I’ve also edited a special section of Health Sociology Review and a co-edited a book on the social aspects of COVID as well as co-authoring a book on face masks in the time of COVID, a report on marginalised communities’ trust in digital health data (including COVID-related data) and an article on people’s use of digital technologies for sociality and intimacy in a Media International Australia special COVID issue.

Another initiative I undertook as a form of documentation of life during COVID in 2020 was using my smartphone to photograph everyday experiences from my own perspective and in the areas in which I live and work (in Sydney and Canberra). I’ve taken 100 photographs and have now uploaded them to Flickr as an open access resource, available for use under the Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike (CC-BY-SA) license. Here’s just a small selection.

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Sign in public toilet at UTS Sydney campus (December 2020)
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Front page of The Canberra Times warning of ‘Christmas chaos’ due to outbreak of COVID on Sydney’s Northern Beaches (December 2020)
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Sign on Sydney City train (December 2020)
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Supermarket signs in Sydney City (July 2020)
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Petrol station signs in Inner South Canberra (April 2020)
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An empty Sydney Opera House forecourt during the first national lockdown (July 2020)
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Toilet paper shortages in Coles, Inner South Canberra (April 2020)

New book Data Selves now out

thumbnail_IMG_1455My new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives has now been released by Polity Press. In the book, I draw on feminist new materialism theory and the anthropology of material culture as well as analyses of popular culture and findings from my empirical studies talking to people about their personal data. I argue that personal data are more-than-human phenomena, invested with diverse forms of vitalities, and reveal the significant implications for data futures, politics and ethics. The book is a companion to my previous Polity book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking.

  • You can get a taste of the book on Amazon via its ‘Look Inside’ feature here.
  • An excerpt from the Introduction chapter can be found here.
  • An excerpt from the chapter on data materialisations can be found here.
  • An interview with me about the book can be found here.

Excerpt from Introduction of Data Selves

My new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives is due for publication next month. Below is an edited excerpt from the Introduction chapter, in which I explain my theoretical approach.

The phenomenon of personal digital data poses a challenge at an ontological level. Personal data blur and challenge many of the binary oppositions and cultural boundaries that dominate in contemporary western societies. Personal data are both private and public. They could be considered to be owned by, and part of, the people who have generated them, but these details are also accessed and used by a multitude of other actors and agencies. At a deeper level, personal data challenge the ontological boundaries between the binary oppositions of Self/Other, nature/culture, human/nonhuman, and living/dead. Discussions of how digital data about and for people are incorporated into everyday lives must therefore grapple with the problem of how we conceptualise the idea of ‘the human’ and life’ in relation to the digital data that are generated by and for humans. Because digital data are associated with non-human entities such as digital devices and software, and because they are often viewed as non-material entities, they are often de-humanised and de-materialised in discourses. The oft-used term ‘big data’, for example, tends to portray large digital datasets as de-personalised and anonymous, even though these datasets are often comprised of very intimate and sensitive details about people and their lives. Alternatively, explanations of how people collect and make sense of their own data are often reduced to individualised models of cognition or behavioural psychology, removing the sociocultural, sensory and affective dimensions of how people generate and respond to these details about themselves …

In what follows, I examine the interplay of human and nonhuman affordances associated with digital technologies – devices, software and the digital data they generate – and the agential capacities that are opened up or closed off as these things assemble. I ponder the questions of who benefits from these agential capacities, and in whose interests they operate. Here again, affective forces are central to the engagements of humans with these nonhuman things and the capacities that are generated by their gatherings. I address how human-data assemblages can generate agential capacities that empower and vitalise actors in the assemblage; but can also expose them to vulnerabilities and harms.

This approach recognises the entanglements of personal digital data assemblages with human action, reaction and understanding of the world. Personal digital data assemblages are partly comprised of information about human action, but their materialisations are also the products of human action, and these materialisations can influence future human action. While digital data assemblages are often conceptualised as immaterial, invisible and intangible, I contend that they are things that are generated in and through material devices (smartphones, computers, sensors), stored in material archives (data repositories), materialised in a range of formats that invite human sensory responses and have material effects on human bodies (documenting and having recursive effects on human flesh). The primary analytical focus is understanding what personal data assemblages allow bodies to do, and how they come to matter in people’s lives.

Feminist new materialism also calls into question and problematises how we might define and materialise personal data. While the literatures on datafication and dataveillance tend to assume that personal data are digital artefacts that are primarily materialised in two-dimensional visual formats as the outcomes of humans’ encounters with digital technologies, an emergent body of scholarship in what has been termed ‘posthuman’ or ‘post-qualitative’ inquiry (Lather and St. Pierre 2013; MacLure 2013) contends that data about humans can be any kind of matter, both organic and inorganic. Human flesh, bones, tissue, blood, breath, sweat or tears, human sensory and affective responses and reactions, objects that people use as part of their mundane routines, or artworks and creative writing outputs, for example, are among the materialisations of and participants in human experience that can be viewed and treated analytically as ‘data’ (Koro-Ljungberg et al. 2017; Taylor et al. 2018).

Drawing on this perspective, I argue that examining the multitude of media (loosely defined) that are used to represent personal data, including arts-based and three-dimensional approaches, is one way of working towards a different way of thinking about their onto-ethico-epistemological aspects. Expanding the definition of what materials can be treated as personal data works to highlight the performative, embodied, multisensory, affective and agential dimensions of human-data assemblages. Not only does this perspective acknowledge the more-than-human worlds of personal data, it also highlights the more-than-digital dimensions of these assemblages.

In this book, I take up calls by Barad (in Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012) and Braidotti (2018) for a critical posthuman studies that incorporates an affirmative ethics. For Braidotti (2018), the mutable and distributed nature of human agency offers a politics that is able to challenge current fears and preoccupations. Cartographies of power relations and their associated entitlements, agencies and capacities can provide detailed ways of thinking through and with political practices and subjectivities. They help to think differently about figurations of human action, belief and practice, their implications, boundaries and limitations, and how new modes of being and acting can be configured and political change effected.

Central to my argument is that in the face of the continuing de-personalisation and de-humanisation of details about people’s bodies and lives that have been rendered into digital data, a new onto-ethico-epistemological position should be developed that reinvests human-data assemblages with different meanings and reconceptualises what we mean by ‘personal data’ – and indeed, how we think about and treat our ‘data selves’. In so doing, we can begin to think more seriously and deeply about what is at stake when human-data assemblages are de-personalised and de-humanised. If these new ways of thinking are taken up, they have significant that go to the core of selfhood, social relations and embodiment as they are enacted in more-than-human worlds.

In making my argument in the pages of this book, I seek to engage in what Barad (2007) refers to as ‘diffractive methodology’, which attempts to work with different bodies of research and theory to generate new insights. As she notes, it is the diffractive patterns of resonances and dissonances that make entanglements of matter and meaning visible. For Barad, diffractive thinking goes beyond critique to ethical engagements, involving reading insights through one another: ‘Diffractive readings bring inventive provocations; they are good to think with’ (Barad in Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012: 50). In the spirit of a diffractive approach, this book’s content is intentionally interdisciplinary and eclectic. While I work principally with feminist new materialism theory, relevant perspectives offered from scholarship in the anthropology of material culture, digital sociology, media studies, internet studies, cultural studies, information studies, archival studies, human-computer interaction studies, education, archaeology and cultural geography are also included.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of these perspectives and begins to explore how they might be taken up to theorise the more-than-human worlds of human-data assemblages. In Chapter 3, I address the ways in which personal data as a phenomenon is materialised in words, images and three-dimensional representations, including provocations and interventions from design- and arts-based approaches that offer alternative ways of thinking about personal data. In Chapters 4 and 5, I draw on empirical material from several research projects I have conducted since 2015 to provide insights into how people conceptualise and live their personal data (details of these projects are provided in the Appendix.) Chapter 4 discusses how people enact and make sense of their personal data and identifies the relational connections, affective forces and agential capacities generated by doing data. Chapter 5 reviews the ways in which the tension between the sharing ethos of participatory digital media and the dystopian imaginaries that circulate concerning the ‘internet knowing too much’ about people are dealt with in everyday data concepts and practices. In the Final Thoughts section, I present my vision for how a new ethics of caring about and living with our data selves might be developed.

 

Interview with me about my new book Data Selves

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I did an interview recently with Rafael Grohmann about my new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives (out from Polity in October). He has now translated it into Portuguese and published it on his blog DigiLabour: available here.

Below are the original English questions and my written responses.

RG: What does data selves mean in a more-than-human perspective?

DL: A more-than-human perspective acknowledges that humans are always already part of nonhuman relations. Humans and nonhumans come together in assemblages that are constantly changing as humans move through their worlds. From this perspective, digital devices and software assemble with humans, and personal data are generated in and with these enactments. These data assemblages are more-than-human things. People live with and co-evolve with their personal data – they learn from data and data learn from them in a continually changing relationship.

RG: How can feminist materialism theory and the anthropology of material culture help us understand datafication?

DL: In previous work, I have suggested the digital devices can be considered to lively, as can digital data. Building on this approach, I use feminist new materialism and the anthropology of material culture to investigate these dimensions of datafication and dataveillance further. The feminist new materialism scholars I draw on in the Data Selves book are Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, Jane Bennett and Karen Barad. These scholars share an interest in the affective forces, vitality and distributed nature of agencies as they are generated with and through more-than-human assemblages. Scholars in the anthropology of material culture such as Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam have also called attention to the lively agencies of humans and nonhumans when they gather together. They focus on how humans respond to, learn about and make sense of their worlds when engaging in embodied and sensory encounters with nonhumans. Ingold describes this as ‘being alive to the world’.

In developing my theoretical approach in Data Selves, I found these perspectives helpful in thinking through what Barad calls the ‘onto-ethico-epistemological’ dimensions of datafication and dataveillance. These perspectives have not yet been taken up to any great extent in thinking about datafication and dataveillance. This is the project I am pursuing. It allows for a non-normative ethical approach to datafication and dataveillance that acknowledges the constantly emergent and dynamic nature of lively data selves and the embodied, multisensory and affective dimensions of how humans live with and learn from their data.

RG: In your forthcoming book, do you talk about data selves and quantified self in world of work?

DL: I don’t discuss the workplace to any great extent in Data Selves. In in my previous book The Quantified Self there was quite a bit of discussion of self-tracking in the workplace. Data Selves differs from The Quantified Self in including a lot of discussion of my empirical research projects that I have conducted over the past few years – indeed, since writing The Quantified Self – which involves people discussing their self-tracking practices and their understandings and use of personal data. My research participants didn’t talk much about their data practices in the context of the workplace, apart from some references on the part of some people to using productivity tools. Those who were active self-trackers were predominantly tracking their body weight, fitness, food or calorie intake, sleep and finances.

RG: In the last year, many books on the same subject have been published, such as David Beer, Shoshana Zuboff, Taina Bucher, Tarleton Gillespie, José van Dijck and Thomas Poell. What is the difference of your book, in theoretical and conceptual terms?

DL: My book differs in several ways: 1) in using more-than-human theory to analyse datafication and dataveillance; 2) in discussing findings from my own empirical research into self-tracking and people’s understandings and practices related to their personal data; and 3) including a greater focus on the multisensory dimensions of data materialisations and sense-making, including how artists and critical designers have sought represent personal data or critique datafication and dataveillance in novel ways.

RG: After a few years since your book Digital Sociology, for you, what is the future research agenda of digital sociology?

DL: I have become increasingly interested in more-than-human theory since writing Digital Sociology and also in postqualitative research as well as innovative methods for social inquiry, including experimenting with design- and arts-based methods. Taking these perspectives and methods into new directions for me constitutes the future agenda of digital sociology.

My publications in 2018

Books

  • Lupton, D. (2018) Fat (revised 2nd edition). London: Routledge.

Book chapters

  • Lupton, D. (2018) Lively data, social fitness and biovalue: the intersections of health self-tracking and social media. In Burgess, J., Marwick, A. and Poell, T. (eds), The Sage Handbook of Social Media. London: Sage, pp. 562-578.
  • Lupton, D. (2018) Digital health and health care. In Scambler, G. (ed), Sociology as Applied to Health and Medicine, 2nd Houndmills: Palgrave, pp. 277-290.
  • Lupton, D. and Smith, GJD. (2018) ‘A much better person’: the agential capacities of self-tracking practices. In Ajana, B. (ed), Metric Culture: Ontologies of Self-Tracking Practices. London: Emerald Publishing, pp. 57-75.
  • Lupton, D. (2018) 3D printing technologies: a third wave perspective. In Michael Filimowicz, M. and Tzankova, V. (eds), New Directions in Third Wave HCI (Volume 1, Technologies). Springer: London, pp. 89-104.

Journal articles

Encyclopedia entry

Fat 2nd edition now published

Fat second edition

 

The second edition of my book Fat has now been published, with a great new cover. This version is twice as long as the first edition. Each chapter has been revised and updated and there is a lot more material in the new edition on how digital material represents fat bodies (for example, memes, GIFs, YouTube, hashtags, selfies and social media platforms such as Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram).

My author’s preface to the second edition is below. The link to the book on Google Books is here, which provides a preview of more content.

The first edition of Fat was completed in 2012, a time at which academic interest in understanding the discourses, practices and politics around fat bodies had been intensifying for some years. Several years later, this topic of study remains a fulcrum where various issues and controversies concerning identities and embodiment converge and intensify. To some extent, the panic about the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ has died down, perhaps due to the news media losing interest and other health issues receiving policy attention. Meanwhile, the views of fat activists have made greater ingress into public debates about obesity; if remaining subject to controversy or denial. Some of the topics I covered in the first edition have become more complex, with new research paying greater attention to the intersectoral aspects of fat embodiment: how social class, ethnicity or race, sexual identity, age and geographical location shape experiences. Further discussion has sparked up around the question of who can speak about or advocate for fat people or engage in critical analyses of obesity politics – must they be fat-identifying people or can others participate in these debates?

Since I wrote the first edition, as part of a turn towards the visual in popular culture, the representation of human bodies of all shapes and sizes have received greater levels of coverage in new digital media forums. These media offer many more opportunities for self-representation and for body positive and fat activists to draw attention to their causes. However, the fit and thin body continues to dominate in these forums as the ideal body type, often around the ‘fitspiration’ label. Social media allow the vilification and stigmatizing of fat people to intensify and be more easily distributed to ever-larger audiences. New digital media and devices promote a culture of intensified self-monitoring and measuring of bodies, and comparing them against norms. Many more apps and wearable devices have come onto the market, aimed at encouraging and helping people to count calories and track their physical activity and body weight in the interests of conforming to these ideals. These media, therefore, have made bodies of all sizes ever-more visible and subject to private monitoring and public display. These issues and topics all receive attention in this second revised edition.

 

Second edition of my book Fat out soon

I have revised and significantly expanded my book Fat (it is now double the length) for its second edition, due to be published mid-year. The book now includes much more material on new digital media and devices, and how they are used to contain, control and portray fat embodiment (often in very negative ways).

Here’s an excerpt from new material I have added to my chapter addressing the transgressive fat body, focusing on memes, GIFs and stock images.

My Google search for ‘fat memes’ found memes that not only stigmatize fat bodies, but are blatantly abusive and often cruel. Just some examples I came across include unflattering images of fat people with texts such as ‘I’m fat because obesity runs in my family. No-one runs in your family’, ‘I’m lazy because I’m fat and I’m fat because I’m lazy’ and ‘Sometimes when I’m sad I like to cut myself … another slice of cheesecake’. When I looked for ‘fat’ GIFs on the GIFY platform, here again were many negative portrayals of fat people, including cartoon characters like Homer Simpson as well as real people, again engaging in humiliating bodily performances. Many of these GIFs showed people jiggling their abdomens or dancing to demonstrate the magnitude of their flesh, belly flopping into swimming pools, eating greedily, smeared with food and so on. Here again, fat white men predominated as targets of ridicule.

Many companies now offer stock images for others to use to illustrate news articles, blog posts or reports. Searching for stock images online for ‘fat people eating’ returns a series of photographs and drawings that invariably depict the types of food consumed by fat people as archetypal high-calorie, fat-laden or fast food. Fat women, men and children are shown biting into or gazing at foods such as hamburgers, pizzas, French fries, fried chicken or cream cake, often with a look of greed on their faces and reclining on an over-stuffed armchair or sofa. Some of these people are scantily dressed or wearing clothes that reveal their large stomachs. One image even transposes a fat man with a hamburger, so that his body becomes the hamburger, topped with his head. Another depicts a hamburger as a hungry beast with a gaping maw consuming a man so that all that can be seen of his body is his legs. Some people are shown with links of sausages around their necks. The words used to describe these images are telling, as in these descriptions: ‘photo of a fat couch potato eating a huge hamburger and watching television’, ‘overweight woman greedily biting sweet cake’.

These types of images emphasize the enticements offered by foodstuff that are portrayed in popular and medical cultures as ‘unhealthy’ and ‘fattening’, pandering to greed and self-indulgence. These foods are depicted in some extreme cases as overwhelming human bodies, both in terms of expanding the size of bodies (and particularly of bellies) and in rendering humans helpless and devoured by their lust for these foods. It is as if these foods are controlling humans through the intensity of people’s desire to consume (and be consumed by) them.

Similar sentiments and images can be found in memes about food, regardless of whether the people represented in them are fat or not. These memes often display a high level of ambivalence about experiencing the desire for the ‘wrong’ foods, the pleasure of eating them and the guilt or self-hatred that may result from indulgence. Such food memes may depict large helpings of ‘junk’ foods with people viewing them with hungry expressions. Others dispense with any images of food itself, and simply show people looking eager or happy, and words such as ‘When people ask when I want to eat. Every day. All day. Anywhere. Anytime’, or ‘I’m on a seafood diet. I see food and eat it.’ Animals (especially cats) are used to stand in for people, as in the meme showing a cat desperately clawing its way through a venetian blind and the words, ‘Did somebody say food?’, and another featuring a close-up of a cat with its mouth stuffed with food, captioned ‘I regret nothing. Nothing.’ In these memes, whether or not food is shown, the dominant feelings that are expressed are the insatiable longing for food and the lack of control people have over their appetites, to the point that they are overwhelming.

New book out – Digital Health: Critical and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

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My new book Digital Health: Critical and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives has now been published with Routledge (link to the book is here). I have included excerpts from the book on this blog as I was writing it: see here, here,  here and here.

I did a Q&A session for Routledge, in which I explained some of the background to the book and give some advice for aspiring writers in my field. There is also a link to view the introductory chapter (see here).