Design sociology part 4: wrapping up

This is the last in my series of posts introducing design sociology, following part 1 (introduction), part 2 (terms and approaches) and part 3 (critical, speculative and ludic design). For an article outlining a project in which Mike Michael and I used design sociology, see here (and an example of one of the design tasks we used is shown to the right). design sociology

Design sociology approaches offer many opportunities for sociologists to expand their research horizons, particularly in relation to applied, practice-based, sociomaterial and future-oriented research. There are several compelling reasons why they should begin to do so. Design sociology can bring together theory and practice in exciting ways. It can be viewed as one element of the ‘live sociology’ to which Back (2012) refers, in which new ways of investigating social worlds are developed.

One of the strongest contributions that design sociology can make is to inspire creative thinking not only for sociologists but also for people, groups or organisations outside academia who take part in their research, developing the multiple vantage points, new ways of telling and showing, and imaginative responses to which Back refers in his vision for live sociology. It also offers a route for productive multidisciplinary collaborations, in which sociology researchers can work with people in design, HCI and anthropology, among others, in exchanging and building on their respective areas of expertise.

Further, in their incorporation of the participation of publics, design-oriented approaches work towards many sociologists’ desire to work with communities in co-research activities and to disseminate their research widely. Design sociology can contribute to research that has broad applications. In many wealthy nations, sociologists and other social researchers are being called upon to orient their research more towards potential users outside the academy. Policy developments in higher education such as the ‘impact’ and ‘innovation’ agendas, measurements of engagement with stakeholders and publics and associated changes in programs for funding research and universities have led to the need for academic researchers to reconsider their research topics, methods and collaborators.

Design sociology can include three different, but interrelated, perspectives (based on Gunn and Donovan’s  (2012) useful tripartite definition of design anthropology). First, it can engage in the sociology of design: that is, sociological research directed at identifying design cultures, or the discursive and material practices which professional designers enact, and the broader sociocultural and political contexts in which design as a way of thinking and a profession is situated. This approach means devoting attention to the ideas, design artefacts and other material objects designers use in their working practices, as well as the spaces and places in which they work. Second, design sociology can involve conducting research through design: that is, by using design methods and concepts as research devices to generate insights into other topics. Both approaches acknowledge the social worlds and material practices of designers and the other participants who might work with them, as well as those of the end-users of designed objects and systems.

Third, design sociology will also often need to embrace sociology with design. Sociologists have not been trained to think in ‘designerly’ ways. Most need help to conceptualise how to go about incorporating design perspectives into their research: and this means collaboration outside sociology. Thus far, of the small number of sociologists who have experimented with design research, most have training in design as well as sociology or have used designers as consultants, or worked on multidisciplinary research teams including designers or HCI researchers. Sociologists who want to incorporate design research approaches but have little hands-on experience of them may need to consider making connections with academics working in design or design anthropology or commission design consultants who have experience in the types of design research outlined here to work with them in planning and executing their projects.

Whichever design sociology approach is taken up, designed phenomena should be positioned as dynamic and contingent assemblages of humans and nonhumans, including ideas, practices, things, spaces and places. Design sociology approaches offer a way of developing greater insights into what people do with objects and systems, such as those involved in digital technologies, and not just what they say they do. Furthermore, they can build on these insights to develop future-oriented perspectives that can contribute to the further development and improvements in the design of objects and systems, including making recommendations. Design sociology can contribute more formative and conceptual research that can contribute to the design process by uncovering the meanings and uses of objects or systems that are already part of everyday lives, or by asking people to consider or generate new ideas about future objects or systems before they have entered everyday life. As such, this research can be helpful in shaping design decisions, both during the design process and when the design is tested.

An important element of a sociological approach to design methods to consider is that of multiple vantage points and contestation. The sociology of expectations and of public engagements with science and technology, for example, often involve identifying disputes and controversies arising from debates about futures (Michael, 2017; Wilkie et al., 2017). This recognition of the possibility of contestation (often between publics and government or big business) remains important to the development of design sociology approaches. For example, rather than assuming that all stakeholders involving in a participatory design process will share imaginaries of the future, a critical sociological approach will be alive to the possibilities of conflict and contestation. The reasons for differences in future imaginaries can be important in understanding the vested interests and politics of the different groups involved.

To conclude, design sociology offers one direction for sociologists to think through how they might orient their research to meet these new expectations and demands in ways that also allow them to maintain their broader intellectual interests in the meanings and practices of social identities, social relationships and social institutions. Depending on how it is applied, design sociology can be considered as a method for social critique and the identification of social inequalities, disadvantage and marginalisation. It can be a form of participatory social research or action research. Design sociology research can also be a way of contributing to the development of new technologies and systems for the benefit of communities, activist groups, government agencies or industry. In many cases, more than one of these outcomes can be achieved.


Back L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review 60: 18-39.

Gunn W and Donovan J. (2012) Design anthropology: an introduction. Design and anthropology. London: Ashgate, 1-16.

Michael M. (2017) Enacting Big Futures, Little Futures: toward an ecology of futures. The Sociological Review online ahead of print.

Wilkie A, Savransky M and Rosengarten M. (2017) Introduction: beyond the impasse of the present. In: Wilkie A, Savranksy M and Rosengarten M (eds) Speculative Research: the Lure of Possible Futures. London: Routledge.

Design sociology part 3: critical, speculative, and ludic design

This is the third part of my series on design sociology (see here for part 1, and here for part 2).

Critical design is another term that is frequently used in the design and HCI literature. Rather than taking a utilitarian and commercially-oriented perspective, critical design incorporates social and political theory into the design process, and is sceptical and questioning of the ideals and practices of mainstream design. It identifies the social and political dimensions of objects and systems and recognises complexity and ambiguity. The language of design is used to ask provocative questions, identify and challenge tacit norms and assumptions and explore alternative futures (Bardzell & Bardzell, 2013; Dunne & Raby, 2013; Kimbell, 2012; Malpass, 2013).

Some design and HCI researchers use the term agonistic design, adversarial design or design activism to describe an approach that is overtly and specifically directed at political activism and challenging the status quo, often including marginalised or disempowered social groups in the design process. This design approach is viewed as offering a counter to the corporatisation and neoliberal political orientation of design thinking by returning to the socialist roots of participatory design (Björgvinsson et al., 2012; DiSalvo, 2012; Markussen, 2013).

One example of a critical design project was the Neighbourhood Networks project, based in Pittsburgh, USA (DiSalvo et al., 2012). Neighbourhood residents were invited to take part in activities using environmental sensors and a prototype of a handheld environment sensing and robotics platform designed specifically for the workshops, and to compare the two types of sensor technologies. They were then asked to invent their own uses for the platform, involving a storyboarding activity that used images and texts and then building their own prototypes. The overall objective of this project was to encourage the participants to become more aware of the environmental concerns in their neighbourhood and to express their concerns in the form of their designs.

Speculative design involves configuring future imaginaries that may not be expected to come to pass. Unlike some design approaches, therefore, it is not directed at problem-solving, but rather at problematising futures. Speculative design can come together with participatory design approaches. It has been advocated as a way of engaging publics with science and technology and identifying their understandings of new technologies and the benefits or risks they see as associated with these technologies (Dunne & Raby, 2013; Gaver et al., 2015; Michael, 2012; Michael, 2017; Wilkie et al., 2015). Speculative design often draws on satire, exaggeration and allegory (Malpass, 2013). By inspiring or responding to speculative design artefacts and ideas, participants are provoked into thinking differently and creatively, perhaps raising questions about conventions and assumptions. Speculative design methods can also uncover the rationales and meanings behind what might be considered to be unusual, irrational, unexpected or perverse uses of objects; and in doing so, contribute to new ways of thinking about their possibilities as well as their deficiencies (Malpass, 2013; Michael, 2016; Michael, 2017).

Using speculative design research, HCI and other researchers have designed objects that are meant to provoke imaginative responses. Thus, for example, as part of Persuasive Anxiety, a project seeking to investigate self-tracking, Gross and colleagues (Gross et al., 2017) invented three design artefacts that were designed to be controversial. These devices were made to be deliberately intrusive as a way of foregrounding the performative nature, anxiety-inspiring qualities and privacy implications of collecting self-tracked data for health and behaviour change. Participants in their study were asked to use the devices over a period of six months in their homes, with the researchers meeting regularly with them to interview them about their experiences and conducting observations of how the devices were used. The researchers were interested in how these devices worked to defamiliarise and disrupt conventional assumptions about self-tracking technologies, opening up new ideas about how these technologies might be employed in everyday life.

Ludic design is explicitly directed at playful and curiosity-driven engagements, and can be an aspect of speculative design. In an example of speculative and ludic design, Gaver and colleagues (Gaver et al., 2013) made several devices as part of their Indoor Weather Stations project, and asked people to use them in their homes. These devices were designed to reveal the microclimates of the homes by highlighting air movement, the colour of ambient light and temperature differentials inside the homes. The purpose of this project was to explore approaches to environmental conditions that departed from the often-moralistic and individualistic focus in HCI design on persuading people to change their behaviours in response to initiatives directed at environmental sustainability.

In the next blog, I will wrap up this series of posts with a discussion of where design sociology can head from here.


Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, S. (2013) What is critical about critical design? Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris: ACM Press. pp. 3297-3306.

Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P. and Hillgren, P.-A. (2012) Agonistic participatory design: working with marginalised social movements. CoDesign, 8 (2-3), 127-144.

DiSalvo, C. (2012) Adversarial Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

DiSalvo, C., Louw, M., Holstius, D., Nourbakhsh, I. and Akin, A. (2012) Toward a public rhetoric through participatory design: critical engagements and creative expression in the neighborhood networks project. Design Issues, 28 (3), 48-61.

Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gaver, W., Bowers, J., Boehner, K., Boucher, A., Cameron, D.W.T., Hauenstein, M., Jarvis, N. and Pennington, S. (2013) Indoor weather stations: investigating a ludic approach to environmental HCI through batch prototyping Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris: ACM Press. pp. 3451-3460.

Gaver, W., Michael, M., Kerridge, T., Wilkie, A., Boucher, A., Ovalle, L. and Plummer-Fernandez, M. (2015) Energy Babble: mixing environmentally-oriented internet content to engage community groups Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’15), Seoul: ACM Press. pp. 1115-1124.

Gross, S., Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S. and Stallings, M. (2017) Persuasive Anxiety: designing and deploying material and formal explorations of personal tracking devices. Human–Computer Interaction, online ahead of print.

Kimbell, L. (2012) Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4 (2), 129-148.

Malpass, M. (2013) Between wit and reason: defining associative, speculative, and critical design in practice. Design and Culture, 5 (3), 333-356.

Markussen, T. (2013) The disruptive aesthetics of design activism: enacting design between art and politics. Design Issues, 29 (1), 38-50.

Michael, M. (2012) De‐signing the object of sociology: toward an ‘idiotic’ methodology. The Sociological Review, 60 (S1), 166-183.

Michael, M. (2016) Notes toward a speculative methodology of everyday life. Qualitative Research, 16 (6), 646-660.

Michael, M. (2017) Enacting Big Futures, Little Futures: toward an ecology of futures. The Sociological Review, online ahead of print.

Wilkie, A., Michael, M. and Plummer‐Fernandez, M. (2015) Speculative method and Twitter: Bots, energy and three conceptual characters. The Sociological Review, 63 (1), 79-101.

Design sociology part 2: terms and approaches

In the previous post I introduced the idea of design sociology. In this post, I begin to outline some of the key terms and approaches and discuss their relevance for the development of design sociology.

Key terms in design

Design and design thinking

The concept of design, as it is used in professional design circles, refers to developing an idea about a product, system or solution, and devising a plan for executing that idea. Design involves an iterative process of problem solving that includes identifying the practices of end users, generating and testing ideas and then implementing them. Most design-related research works towards developing a set of recommendations for how the design of objects or systems can be developed and improved for their targeted users. It therefore has a future-oriented perspective that can move from what is currently known to what might occur (Bergman, Lyytinen, & Mark, 2007; Dorst, 2011; Drazin, 2013; Kimbell, 2011, 2012): A design problem is developed, which the actions of designers need to address to achieve a better solution for the relevant stakeholders (Bergman et al., 2007). Success is measured by how well the proposed solutions work for the intended purpose.

Design thinking is a design-based approach to problem solving, change or idea-generation beyond the domain of professional design that emerged about two decades ago. Design thinking became popular as a new mode of creating solutions because designers were viewed as possessing particular creative and innovation skills, able to adopt a human-centred approach and possessing a privileged sensitivity to how changes in culture can be identified and built on in developing new cultural forms. In the neoliberal and entrepreneurial context prevailing in most wealthy countries, in which the capacity for developing innovation, creativity, novelty and futures forecasting are prized as ways of fostering economic group, these attributes have achieved high worth (Drazin, 2013; Kimbell, 2011). The design thinking approach has been taken up in particular in the contexts of management, business, information technology, and organisation, but also by those working towards social change and policy development (Bjögvinsson, Ehn, & Hillgren, 2012; Brown & Wyatt, 2010; Dorst, 2011; Kimbell, 2011).

The design workshop is the archetypal set-up for running design research activities, involving bringing together professional designers or design research teams with end-users and other stakeholders to identify challenges and develop new ideas. Methods of running participatory design activities often involve some kind of design artefact, used to challenge perceptions and stimulate ideas and new ways of doing. These artefacts are developed from consultations with commissioning clients or previous research into the topic under investigation, which may involve reviewing the existing literature as well as conducting new social research to define the problem, typically using the standard methods of surveys, focus groups or one-to-one interviews. Design artefacts are usually a kind of material object that can be viewed or handled, but may also be concepts that are expressed verbally (Drazin, 2013). As they are used in design workshops, design artefacts operate as boundary objects because they enable design knowledge to cross social worlds and facilitate alignment of interests across these different contexts (Bergman et al., 2007; Vines, Clarke, Wright, McCarthy, & Olivier, 2013). Design artefacts need to possess the capability for common representation, to transform design knowledge, mobilise for action, and legitimise design knowledge across heterogeneous social worlds (Bergman et al., 2007).

Examples of design artefacts that are typically used in workshops include descriptive or functional prototypes and mock-ups, images, fictional narratives, videos, games, dramatic performances, storyboards, scenarios, inspiration cards, or cultural probes (objects that invite people to perform certain tasks). Sometimes design artefacts are given to participants to be deployed or worked with at home or in work settings. Ideally, these artefacts work to spark responses that go beyond the obvious, reveal gaps and ambiguities in understandings, and inspire new and often provocative ideas that challenge taken-for-granted assumptions. Design artefacts are often made by the research or design team before research participants encounter them, but in some projects, they are developed together with the participants as part of workshops.

In seeking to understand human behaviour, design and HCI research has traditionally adopted cognitive psychological models of behaviour that focus on individual responses (Vines et al., 2013). The practices associated with an object or system have often been examined without recognition or identification of related practices that contribute to an ecology of use, involving other humans and nonhumans, space and place. Design thinking and research has also been subjected to criticism for its limited, individualistic and predominantly utilitarian and commercially-oriented approach (see, for example, Dunne & Raby, 2013; Kimbell, 2011, 2012; Malpass, 2013; Vines et al., 2013). In recent times, however, many design and HCI researchers have begun to include sociocultural and political perspectives in their work. In HCI research, this is referred to as the third paradigm (following the engineering and cognitive psychology paradigms) one that has been gathering momentum for several years (Harrison, Sengers, & Tatar, 2011; Harrison, Tatar, & Sengers, 2007; Sellen, Rogers, Harper, & Rodden, 2009). The term reflective design has also been employed in the HCI literature to encompass researchers’ attempts to question taken-for-granted values and tacit norms and assumptions, move beyond single authoritative interpretations to elicit multiple viewpoints and develop ideas for alternative possibilities (Gaver et al., 2013; Sengers, Boehner, David, & Kaye, 2005; Sengers & Gaver, 2006).

These developments in design and HCI research bring its interests, perspectives and methods closer to those of sociology. Many of these approaches involve end-users at some point in the design process. The process of collaboration with publics and other stakeholders is often referred to as co-design or participatory design. Co-design and participatory design have been described as a process of experimentation, mutual learning and reflection in action involving multiple participants beyond designers. The underlying ideal is that those who will use these ideas, processes or objects (the end-users) are able to have a say in how they are designed. The origins of participatory design lie in social rights movements. Activities are therefore often directed at incorporating the ideas of community groups, with a focus of achieving social change or improvements to people’s living conditions.  (Bjögvinsson et al., 2012; DiSalvo, Louw, Holstius, Nourbakhsh, & Akin, 2012; Malpass, 2013; Muller, 2003; Robertson & Simonsen, 2012, 2013). Some researchers have sought to include the participation of social groups who have traditionally have been excluded from the design process, such as those from culturally and linguistically-diverse backgrounds, with significant health conditions, children or older people or people of low socioeconomic status (for example, Hendriks, Huybrechts, Wilkinson, & Slegers, 2014; Lindsay, Jackson, Schofield, & Olivier, 2012; Vines et al., 2013).

An example of participatory design is the method of participatory forecasting and backcasting. Groups of stakeholders are asked to imagine desirable probable, possible or preferable future scenarios, which may involve brainstorming exercises and ideas clustering. Once a set of scenarios has been developed, they are used as a tool for the development and assessment of strategies and solutions. When backcasting is used, these future scenarios are developed, and then participants work back to the present to develop interventions to achieve these futures (Carlsson-Kanyama, Dreborg, Moll, & Padovan, 2008).  The scenarios are sometimes represented using images, and then presented to further groups of participants to invite their responses. This approach has mostly been used for such topics as environmental sustainability (for example, Carlsson-Kanyama et al., 2008; Robinson, Burch, Talwar, O’Shea, & Walsh, 2011) and household consumption and energy use (for example, Davies, 2014; Doyle & Davies, 2013).

The next post will continue looking at approaches, covering critical, speculative and ludic design. 


Bergman, M., Lyytinen, K., & Mark, G. (2007). Boundary objects in design: an ecological view of design artifacts. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 8(11), 546-568.

Bjögvinsson, E., Ehn, P., & Hillgren, P.-A. (2012). Design things and design thinking: contemporary participatory design challenges. Design Issues, 28(3), 101-116.

Brown, T., & Wyatt, J. (2010). Design thinking for social innovation. Development Outreach, 12(1), 29-43.

Carlsson-Kanyama, A., Dreborg, K. H., Moll, H. C., & Padovan, D. (2008). Participative backcasting: a tool for involving stakeholders in local sustainability planning. Futures, 40(1), 34-46.

Davies, A. R. (2014). Co-creating sustainable eating futures: Technology, ICT and citizen–consumer ambivalence. Futures, 62, Part B, 181-193.

DiSalvo, C., Louw, M., Holstius, D., Nourbakhsh, I., & Akin, A. (2012). Toward a public rhetoric through participatory design: critical engagements and creative expression in the neighborhood networks project. Design Issues, 28(3), 48-61.

Dorst, K. (2011). The core of ‘design thinking’ and its application. Design Studies, 32(6), 521-532.

Doyle, R., & Davies, A. R. (2013). Towards sustainable household consumption: exploring a practice oriented, participatory backcasting approach for sustainable home heating practices in Ireland. Journal of Cleaner Production, 48, 260-271.

Drazin, A. (2013). The social life of concepts in design anthropology. In W. Gunn, T. Otto, & R. C. Smith (Eds.), Design anthropology: Theory and practice (pp. 33-50). London: Bloomsbury.

Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gaver, W., Bowers, J., Boehner, K., Boucher, A., Cameron, D. W. T., Hauenstein, M., . . . Pennington, S. (2013). Indoor weather stations: investigating a ludic approach to environmental HCI through batch prototyping. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris. ACM Press, pp. 3451-3460.

Harrison, S., Sengers, P., & Tatar, D. (2011). Making epistemological trouble: Third-paradigm HCI as successor science. Interacting with Computers, 23(5), 385-392.

Harrison, S., Tatar, D., & Sengers, P. (2007). The three paradigms of HCI. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’07), San Jose, CA. ACM Press, pp. 1-18.

Hendriks, N., Huybrechts, L., Wilkinson, A., & Slegers, K. (2014). Challenges in doing participatory design with people with dementia. 13th Participatory Design Conference (PDC ’14), Windhoek, Namibia. ACM Press, pp. 33-36.

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306.

Kimbell, L. (2012). Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4(2), 129-148.

Lindsay, S., Jackson, D., Schofield, G., & Olivier, P. (2012). Engaging older people using participatory design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’12), Austin, Texas. ACM Press, pp. 1199-1208.

Malpass, M. (2013). Between wit and reason: defining associative, speculative, and critical design in practice. Design and Culture, 5(3), 333-356.

Muller, M. J. (2003). Participatory design: the third space in HCI. In A. Sears & J. A. Jacko (Eds.), Human-computer interaction: Development process (pp. 165-185). New York: CRC Press.

Robertson, T., & Simonsen, J. (2012). Challenges and opportunities in contemporary participatory design. Design Issues, 28(3), 3-9.

Robertson, T., & Simonsen, J. (2013). Participatory dsign: an introduction. In J. Simonsen & T. Robertson (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design (pp. 1-17). London: Routledge.

Robinson, J., Burch, S., Talwar, S., O’Shea, M., & Walsh, M. (2011). Envisioning sustainability: recent progress in the use of participatory backcasting approaches for sustainability research. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 78(5), 756-768.

Sellen, A., Rogers, Y., Harper, R., & Rodden, T. (2009). Reflecting human values in the digital age. Communications of the ACM, 52(3), 58-66.

Sengers, P., Boehner, K., David, S., & Kaye, J. J. (2005). Reflective design. Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility, Aarhus. ACM Press, pp. 49-58.

Sengers, P., & Gaver, B. (2006). Staying open to interpretation: engaging multiple meanings in design and evaluation. Proceedings of the 6th conference on Designing Interactive systems (DIS 2006), University Park, Pennsylvania. ACM Press, pp. 99-108.

Vines, J., Clarke, R., Wright, P., McCarthy, J., & Olivier, P. (2013). Configuring participation: on how we involve people in design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris. ACM Press, pp. 429-438.

Feeling data – the role of touch in data sense

I have had an article accepted for publication in a special issue on haptic media in New Media & Society. In the article, I discuss the ways in which people’s engagements with their personal digital data can be facilitated with the use of touch, by generating three-dimensional materialisations of their data.

The introduction to the article is below. The PDF of the entire author’s accepted version is here: Lupton 2017 Feeling data – touch and data sense.

People’s encounters and entanglements with the personal digital data that they generate is a new and compelling area of research interest in this age of the ascendancy of digital data. The emergence of novel modes of generating digital data about humans and their activities and movements has the potential for new ways of learning about and conceptualising bodies, selves and social relations. The experience of everyday life in many parts of the world is now increasingly datafied – rendered into digital data forms. People’s interactions online, their use of mobile and wearable devices, and other ‘smart’ objects and their movements in sensor-embedded spaces all generate multiple and constant flows of digital data, often about intensely personal actions and preferences, social relationships, and bodily functions and movements. They are encouraged to take the opportunity to view and reflect on this information and use it to optimise their lives, improve their health and wellbeing, contribute to their memories or achieve self-knowledge (Lupton, 2016b; 2016a; Nafus and Sherman, 2014; Selke, 2016). In response to the continual data streams and traces generated about them, people are learning to come to terms with how their personal information is generated and what meanings and value it offers them. They are now called upon to engage with a variety of forms of information about themselves and to confront the complexities of how these data are used by others.

Responding to personal data is a highly sensory experience, involving people to engage in complex negotiations between assessing the information they receive from their embodied senses and that generated from digital devices. The ways in which their personal details are translated from digital data into material form are important to people’s sensory engagements with their data. Most discussions of personal digital data materialisations have focused on two-dimensional visual renderings: data visualisations that are primarily designed to be looked at. This article is intended as a contribution towards understanding the sensory dimensions of personal digital data, with a particular focus on the haptic. I explore the topic of how personal digital data and their circulations can be made more perceptible and therefore interpretable to people with the use of three-dimensional materialisations that invite not only viewing but also touching and handling, and in some cases, the senses of hearing, taste and smell as well. I argue that these forms of data materialisation are potentially integral to new modes of understanding and incorporating personal data into everyday life, living with and alongside these data.

The discussion is structured into several parts. In the first part, I review some of the relevant literature on human embodiment, the senses and digital technologies, establishing the theoretical basis that is further developed in the article. This is followed by a discussion of how the ontologies of personal digital data may be theorised. I then introduce the notion of data sense, drawing attention to the sensory dimensions of how people interpret their data. I then discuss the ways in which personal digital data can be fabricated into three-dimensional forms using 3D printing technologies – data physicalisations – so that they can be experienced and responded to in multisensory ways. I provide examples of objects created from personal digital data that can be handled, displayed as decorative artefacts, worn on the body as jewellery and even eaten. Finally, I address the politics of personal data and their materialisations. The concluding comments raise some directions for further research emerging from this discussion.

Affective atmospheres and digital health

I have just submitted an essay for the special issue of Digital Health I am editing on the senses and digital health. In the essay I outline how the concept of affective atmospheres can be used to understand how and why people use or fail to take up digital health technologies, with a particular focus on the sensory and affective dimensions of these responses. The preprint version is available here, and the abstract is below.

The concept of affective atmospheres has recently emerged in cultural geography to refer to the feelings that are generated by the interactions and movements of human and nonhuman actors in specific spaces and places. Affective atmospheres can have profound effects on the ways in which people think and feel about and sense the spaces they inhabit and through which they move and the other actors in those spaces. Thus far, very little research has adopted this concept to explore the ways in which digital health technologies are used. As part of seeking to redress this lacuna, in this essay I draw on previously published literature on affective atmospheres to demonstrate and explain the implications of this scholarship for future theoretical and empirical scholarship about digital health practices that pays attention to their affective and sensory elements. The article is structured into six parts. The first part outlines the concepts and research practices underpinning affective atmospheres scholarship. In the second part, I review some of the research that looks at place, space and mobilities in relation to affective atmospheres. In the third part I go on to focus more specifically on the affective atmospheres of medical encounters, and then move on to digital technology use in the fourth part. I then address in the fifth part some relevant scholarship on digital health technologies. I end the essay with some reflections of directions in which future research taking up the concept of affective atmospheres in the context of digital health technologies can go. The key research question that these topics all work towards is that asking ‘How does digital health feel?’