New book now out – COVID Societies: Theorising the Coronavirus Crisis

The third in my series of books about the social aspects of COVID-19 is out today. COVID Societies: Theorising the Coronavirus Crisis can be ordered from Routledge here and a preview of its contents can be viewed at Google Books here. The abstracts for each chapter are listed below.

INTRODUCTION: COVID societies

The COVID-19 crisis has provoked intense and far-reaching socioeconomic changes globally as well as posing a major threat to human health and wellbeing. This introductory chapter introduces the rationale for the book, addressing the question of why sociocultural theories and historical perspectives are so important to make sense of how the COVID catastrophe erupted and created so much turmoil worldwide. The chapter also provides an outline of the content of the remainder of the book, detailing the topics and theoretical perspectives on which each of the ensuing chapters focus. These include discussions of the political economy perspective; biopolitics; risk society and cultures; gender and queer theory; and more-than-human theory.

1          COVID IN CONTEXT: Histories and narratives of health, risk and contagion

Major new or recurring infectious disease outbreaks are always accompanied by significant sociocultural and political disruptions and transformations. These crises often call into question ways of viewing and living in the world, as well as exposing and entrenching forms of social discrimination and inequalities. This chapter provides an overview of the historical, sociocultural and political contexts of the COVID-19 crisis. Medical historians, sociologists, anthropologists and cultural geographers have shown that social, cultural and political responses to the emergence or return of deadly pathogens often bring to the surface hidden, unacknowledged or long-established beliefs and practices. The chapter demonstrates how these perspectives have offered much of value in relation to the analysis of the sociocultural and political dimensions of previous serious infectious diseases. This discussion is followed by an account of how the new virus SARS-CoV-2 and the new disease COVID-19 emerged in the early months of 2020 and developments in the pandemic throughout 2020 and into 2021.

2          THE MACROPOLITICS OF COVID: A political economy perspective

Political economy critiques adopt a macropolitical perspective, drawing on Marxist theory as well as feminist critiques, critical disability studies, critical race theory and postcolonial theory to highlight the social determinants of health and healthcare and the role played by medical expertise and authority in society. A political economy perspective incorporates the discussion of social justice issues, inequalities and the exacerbation of socioeconomic disadvantage caused by the pandemic, including the disproportionate effects on low-income countries and marginalised social groups. Indeed, some commentators have argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced a ‘crisis of care’, in which the failings of neoliberal political and privatised approaches to public health surveillance systems and healthcare delivery across the world have been shockingly revealed. This chapter shows how neoliberal and free market capitalist political systems have been called to account and disrupted by the COVID crisis but have also operated to protect the privileged and further entrench inequalities in COVID societies. The concepts of medical dominance, the social determinants of health and globalisation are explained and applied to the COVID crisis.

3          THE BIOPOLITICS OF COVID: Foucauldian approaches

COVID-19 governance at the level of the state raises questions about how power is exerted and experienced and how it may be productive as well as repressive. This chapter delves more deeply into the complexities of these tensions and conflicts, using perspectives drawn from the scholarship of the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault to trace the historical underpinnings of contemporary approaches and responses to the COVID crisis. Various levels of control over citizens’ bodies and movements have been exerted and rationales for limiting individual freedoms put forward to protect the health of the body politic. Foucauldian theory offers concepts for understanding these relations of power. The scholarship of philosophers Giorgio Agamben and his concepts of bare life and states of exception, Roberto Esposito and his notions of affirmative biopolitics and immunitary mechanisms, and Achille Mbembe and his writings on necropolitics is also outlined. This discussion is followed by an account of Foucauldian viewpoints on the biopolitical dimensions of COVID societies have been developed, including discussion of how these theorists analysed social and governmental responses to the crisis.

4          RISK AND COVID: Risk society and risk cultures

The COVID-19 crisis is suffused with discourses, practices and emotions related to people’s reactions to risk and uncertainty. This chapter focuses on sociologist Ulrich Beck’s risk society perspective and anthropologist Mary Douglas’ cultural/symbolic approach to risk. Concepts from Beck’s scholarship, including reflexive modernisation, individualisation and cosmopolitanism, and Douglas’ work on the cultures of risk, blame and symbolic boundary control are explained and applied in an analysis of risk and uncertainty in COVID societies. The chapter shows that the risk discourses and practices circulating within and between regions and countries globally involve an affectively compelling combination of concepts of embodiment, contagion, danger and morality. The COVID crisis can be considered both a pre-industrial, fateful event and a late modern risk society phenomenon.

5          QUEERING COVID: Insights from gender and queer theory

This chapter introduces insights from scholarship in gender and queer theory and shows how they can be productively applied to an analysis of embodiment and socialities in COVID-19 times. While contemporary queer theory has its roots in critical studies of gender and sexuality, it has since expanded well beyond these origins. There are many intersections and overlaps between gender and queer theory, and both reach into many related fields: including queer necropolitics, queer death studies, crip studies, fat studies and critical animal studies. The major precepts of these intertwined bodies of literature are explained, with reference to the influential scholarship of philosophers such as Mel Chen, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Julia Kristeva. These extensions of gender and queer theory and what they offer for analysis of the COVID crisis are considered in this chapter. They critically analyse aspects of discourse, affect and embodiment to ‘queer the pandemic’: that is, to highlight disjunctures and invisibilities in the ways with which COVID has been portrayed and dealt and to provide further insights into the nature of lived experience in COVID societies. In identifying how these responses might be subject to contestation and change, contributors to gender and queer theory scholarship imagine better and more inclusive futures.

6          MORE-THAN-HUMAN COVID WORLDS: Sociomaterial perspectives

Given the intertwined dimensions of human and nonhuman relations and connections, the crushing impact of the COVID-19 crisis extends well beyond human lives and agencies. Scholars and researchers are beginning to engage with the body of scholarship that I refer to as ‘more-than-human theory’ (alternative terms used are ‘new materialisms’ or ‘the critical posthumanities’). There are various varieties of more-than-human theory. In the discussion presented here, I focus specifically on the scholarship that builds on non-western cosmologies (particularly Indigenous and First Nations philosophies) and the feminist materialism perspectives offered by western philosophers Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Karen Barad and Jane Bennett. These philosophies advance a non-anthropocentric approach to understanding human existence. The implications of this approach for understanding the complexities and dynamism of COVID societies are outlined in this chapter. More-than-human theory is applied to better understand the affective forces and relational connections that are generated with and through humans’ encounters with nonhuman agents. I discuss the assemblages of humans and nonhumans that have come together and come apart as the COVID crisis unfolded. As I show, such an approach expands the One Health perspective in productive ways.

CONCLUSION: Reflections on COVID futures

This brief conclusion chapter summarises the key insights offered by COVID Societies, and then moves towards a future-oriented discussion. It is noted that throughout the book, a series of intertwined threads cross back and forth between the macropolitical and micropolitical dimensions of COVID-19: contagion, death, risk, 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. At this point in the pandemic, only uncertainty seems certain. As we learn to live with and through COVID, we must work towards better conditions for people across geographical regions. Acknowledging our vulnerability and using this knowledge to better care for the more-than-human worlds in which we are emplaced is a way forward to care more deeply about ourselves and our fellow species.

The three COVID books

Arguing on Facebook about COVID: a case study of key beliefs, rationales and strategies

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, social media platforms have become well-known for both disseminating misinformation and conspiracy theories as well as acting as valuable information sources concerning the novel coronavirus and governments’ efforts to manage and contain COVID. Facebook in particular – the world’s most popular social media site – has been singled out as a key platform for naysayers such as anti-vaccination exponents and ‘sovereign citizens’ to express their resentment at containment measures such as lockdowns, quarantine and self-isolation regulations, vaccination mandates and face-covering rules.

What rationales and beliefs underpin these arguments? How and to what extent are they contested or debated on Facebook? What rhetorical strategies are employed by commentators to attempt to persuade others that their views/facts are correct?

To explore these questions, I chose a case study of a short video (2 minutes 5 seconds long) shared by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Facebook on 19 February 2022. I came across the video three days after it was published on the platform as part of my routine Facebook use. It turned up in my feed because a Facebook friend of mine had shared it (which it how the average Facebook user is presented with content from organisations like WHO if they don’t follow these accounts themselves.) I noticed how much engagement this post had received in those three days. There were 6,000 reactions: including 5k likes but also 551 laughing face emojis (suggesting viewers found the video content risible), 1.2k comments, 2.2k shares and 244k views. I decided to delve into the comments thread to see what people were saying in response to the video.

WHO’s official Facebook page has a huge follower base: at the time that I viewed this video, their page listed over 14 million likes and over 38 million followers. It is clearly a highly trusted Facebook presence. Many of its posts have thousands of reactions (the use of emojis to respond to posts), likes, comments and shares. WHO shares content at least once a day and often more frequently: most of this content is made by WHO itself in its role to communicate preventive health messages globally. In reviewing their latest content, it is evident that WHO has a very busy and accomplished team making their social media content.

The video featured two WHO experts: Dr Mike Ryan (pictured above from the opening section of the video) and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, both of whom feature regularly in WHO’s social media content. Ryan was introduced in a caption as ‘ED, WHO Health Emergencies Programme’ and Van Kerkhove as ‘COVID-19 technical lead, WHO Health Emergencies Programme’.

In this video, both people spoke to camera as if to an unseen interviewer, explaining why they were concerned about governments beginning to loosen COVID restrictions too quickly.

The written introduction to the video stated:

Some countries are lifting all public health and social measures despite high numbers of COVID-19 cases/deaths. Dr Mike Ryan and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove explain why a slow approach is better.

Ryan and Van Kerkhove went on to use simple English to acknowledge that there is a strong desire on the part of governments and citizens to ‘open up’ and remove all COVID restrictions and ‘go back to normal’. They warn, however, that such actions could lead to the pandemic continuing ‘much longer than it needs to be’ due to ‘the political pressure to open up’ in ‘some situations’, and that replacing abandoned control measures would be difficult if a new variant emerged. Ryan and Van Kerkhove emphasise the importance of ‘a slow, step-wise approach’ to lifting COVID restrictions rather than an ‘all-or-nothing approach’ that ‘many countries’ are adopting at this point in the COVID crisis.

Both speakers are careful not to single out individual leaders or governments for criticism in these quite vague statements, leaving it up to the viewer to make a judgement about exactly to which ‘situation’ they are referring. These experts also ‘acknowledge uncertainty’ and that their concerns may be unfounded but emphasise the need for caution. They note that they do not ‘blame anyone’ for feeling confused, given the continual flux in governments’ COVID measures. Van Kerkhove ends by stating firmly that ‘you [the video viewers] have control over this’ regardless of government actions and then Ryan chimes in by asking ‘every individual just to look at your situation’ and ‘be smart, protect yourself, protect others, get vaccinated and just be safe and careful’.

There’s a lot that could be said about the statements made by these two WHO experts in this video: the veiled critique of ‘many countries” government actions and health communication efforts, the focus on individual responsibility in the face of government inaction and lack of responsibility. But I wanted to direct my attention to the more than 1,000 comments Facebook users wrote in response to this video.

I noticed first that comments came from all over the world – evidence again of the global reach and popularity of Facebook. When commentors were responding to each other, therefore, there were many examples of someone in Asia, South America or Africa engaging with Facebook users located in the USA, Australia, Canada, Europe or the UK.

Another observation was that a vigorous debate was occurring in the comments section, with supporters of the video’s messages seeking to argue with those who decried what they saw as an overly cautious or even unscientific argument from the WHO experts. Those who did not support the WHO’s points made such arguments as (my paraphrasing):

  • opening up will help the economy – people need jobs
  • people’s lives need to get back to ‘normal’
  • most populations are now adequately vaccinated, so there is no need for further restrictions
  • governments are lying to their citizens and spreading false information as a way of exerting greater control over them
  • the novel coronavirus does not exist and nor does COVID
  • it is risk to one’s health to wear masks for prolonged periods of time
  • other health conditions kill more people than COVID
  • COVID mass testing and mass vaccination have been conducted as a profit-making enterprise serving Big Pharma and governments
  • WHO’s facts are wrong and they are spreading lies and fear, trying to promote their own interests for political purposes
  • WHO has shown little leadership during the pandemic and is ineffectual
  • face masks give a false sense of security and are useless as a preventive measure
  • people who follow government restrictions are being controlled and can’t think for themselves
  • the pandemic has been going on for two years and governments and health agencies like WHO are still not controlling it adequately
  • the person commenting does not like to feel forced to do anything by government authorities, especially if restrictions/mandates do not help the situation (in their view) – ‘my body, my choice’
  • even vaccinated people can still become infected with or transmit the coronavirus, fall ill or die of COVID – they are therefore pointless
  • COVID is ‘real’ but controllable like influenza or no worse than the common cold
  • governments who continue to impose restrictions/mandates are ‘Socialist’
  • people’s immune systems can be strengthened without vaccines due to basic health promoting strategies
  • people are dying from being given too many COVID vaccines (including children), not from the disease itself
  • vaccines are ‘bioweapons’
  • the medical establishment and the government are forcing COVID vaccines on people and hiding evidence of their serious side-effects
  • there is a difference between ‘dying with COVID’ and ‘dying from COVID’ – governments and health agencies are deliberately obscuring this
  • people need to be freed from living in fear
  • scientists and medical experts are controlled by governments to serve political agendas
  • ‘commonsense’ practices such as eating a healthy diet, taking Vitamin D and washing hands regularly will adequately protect against COVID

People who supported the points made by the WHO experts in the video tended to be reactive in their comments, responding to the naysayers using such rationales as:

  • COVID is a real threat and has killed many people – we still need to be cautious to protect ourselves and others
  • even though the situation seems to be improving in many countries, new variants could emerge that could pose major challenges
  • scientific and medical knowledge and expertise should be trusted over other information sources
  • many people are still dying
  • opening up too quickly will lead to many more deaths globally
  • vaccines do protect against serious disease and death and everyone should accept them: the benefits outweigh any risk
  • face masks are important protective agents against infection (just as shoes, for example, protect against foot injuries)
  • people who don’t want to conform to COVID restrictions/mandates are being selfish and don’t understand the importance of self-sacrifice to protect others
  • wearing face masks and getting vaccinated are small sacrifices to make for the greater good and saving others’ lives as well as self-protection
  • economies are damaged if too many workers become ill from COVID and can’t go to work
  • the person commenting still feels at high risk from COVID and is happy to continue to engage in preventive measures such as wearing masks and accepting vaccination
  • young children have not yet been protected by COVID vaccination in many countries and therefore are vulnerable to infection
  • mass vaccination programs have worked well globally to protect people against other serious diseases, such as polio
  • people who support dropping all restrictions are engaging in magical thinking or do not want to face reality
  • low income countries do not have enough medical support to help people who become ill with COVID
  • countries should work together in a global response to COVID rather than simply pursing nationalistic interests

Rhetorical strategies on the part of both ‘sides’ of the argument included:

  • giving examples from their own lives/health (e.g. they had avoided COVID because of wearing face masks and getting vaccinated or they avoided COVID because their immune systems were naturally strong and not weakened by vaccines)
  • describing the situations of people they knew personally (e.g. those who died from COVID vaccines or those who died because they refused COVID vaccines)
  • urging people to ‘do their research’ or ‘due diligence’ and not just rely on television, social media or what their friends tell them
  • accusing those who are disagreeing with them of ‘lying’, ‘making up facts to suit their agenda’, as ‘stupid’ or simply gullible (to either misinformation or in believing the science)
  • providing hyperlinks to articles or blog posts outside of Facebook to support their claims and urging others to read them as part of educating themselves about the ‘facts’
  • claiming ‘truth’ in response to ‘non-truths’, ‘lies’ or ‘fake news’
  • contrasting the value of all human lives versus the value of individual freedom
  • the use of large numbers to support the validity of the arguments

As just one example of a pithy exchange between two commentators:

Commentator 1: We can’t stop living.

Commentator 2: 900,000 Americans have.

These findings demonstrate the kinds of beliefs and rationales underpinning Facebook users’ concepts of COVID risk and their attitudes towards COVID restrictions. Both sides received ardent support from others. Comments sometime descended into ad hominem attacks but most of the content was focused on presenting opinions or ‘facts’ and responding to these arguments with counter-claims. Most of the commentators attempted to act as educators, challenging the misinformation or extreme views put forward by the naysayers. Emotions ran high as people defended their position or accused others of stupidity, blindness to the truth or making up facts. Some extreme misinformation positions and conspiracy theories were advanced (e.g. ‘the holy blood of Jesus Christ is our only protection’) but many arguments concerned topics such as whether vaccines were necessary or effective (and how many there should be) or raised issues around the politics of COVID control.

The main insight from this single case study of COVID commentary in response to a peak health agency’s video posted to Facebook is that there was little evidence of an echo-chamber or filter bubble where only one main viewpoint was put foward. Instead, vigorous debate and contestation about ‘the truth’ went on in the comments section, suggesting an open forum for many opinions to be aired. However, it was also clear that people’s opinions or beliefs were not challenged in and through the debates or comments. Despite all the argumentation and presenting of examples from personal experience or hyperlinks to other material, no consensus or acceptance of other people’s opposing views was evident in these comment threads.

New research website – Social Aspects of COVID-19

I’ve done quite a bit of research on the social aspects of the COVID crisis over the past two years – including posts on this blog but also books, book chapters, journal articles, pieces in places like Medium and The Conversation, and recorded talks.

I’ve made a new website bringing it all together in one place, which can be accessed here. I’ll be updating it as new publications come out.

From my collection of ‘COVID Life’ photos, December 2021

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.

Registry of Australian social research on COVID-19

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Photo credit: D Lupton

 

I am doing lots of COVID-related projects and so are many other Australian social researchers.

Here’s a registry of these projects I have compiled – please add yours if it is missing. Registry of Australian Social Research on COVID-19

 

 

COVID society – some resources I have put together for social researchers

 

photo-1584127050037-746c151b9284

 

Over the past fortnight, I’ve put together a few open-access resources concerning what an initial agenda for COVID-related social research could be and research methods for conducting fieldwork in the COVID world.

Links are below:

Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic (Google Doc crowd-sourced resource)

Social Research for a COVID and post-COVID World: An Initial Agenda (blog post)

Conducting Qualitative Fieldwork During COVID-19 (PowerPoint slides) (Webinar presentation with voice and slides)

 

Photo credit: Daniel Tafjord on Unsplash

 

Digital Food Cultures book now published

Digital Food Cultures cover

 

My latest book, Digital Food Cultures, co-edited with Zeena Feldman, has now been published with Routledge, as part of their Critical Food Studies Series. The abstracts and authors of each chapter are listed below. A book preview on Google Books is available here.

1. Understanding Digital Food Cultures: Deborah Lupton

This chapter introduces the book and provides a comprehensive overview of previous scholarship on digital food cultures. The five main themes into which the twelve other chapters are grouped are identified: bodies and affects; healthism and spirituality; expertise and influencers; spatiality and politics; and food futures.

2. Self-Tracking and Digital Food Cultures: Surveillance and Self-Representation of the Moral ‘Healthy’ Body: Rachael Kent

No longer defined in opposition to illness, ‘good’ health as representative of lifestyle correction has become a central discourse in international health promotion strategies for many decades.  This neoliberal discourse positions the citizen as a consumer, who self-regulates to make the ‘right’ ethical decisions in the management of individual self-care. Social media are key platforms to represent such ‘healthy’ lifestyles through the surveillance of food and consumption practices, as well as other health-related content. Through a critical discourse analysis of semi-structured interviews and guided reflexive diaries, this chapter explores how practices of food and health self-representation on Facebook and Instagram, and through the use of self-tracking apps, enable the performance of a moral ‘healthy’ body and identity, constructed by participants through carefully balanced inclusion and exclusion of ‘healthy’ and ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ or ‘cheat’ foods and lifestyles. The empirical findings explored both the qualitative and quantitative self-representations and practices of self-tracking in managing the body and health. Over time, however, the burdens of tracking health behaviours and the self-regulation promoted by these technologies tied health and lifestyle to ethical parameters of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours, influencing participants’ sense of wellbeing and mental health.

3. Carnivalesque Food Videos: Excess, Gender and Affect on YouTube: Deborah Lupton

Food-related content features highly on YouTube. Some genres of YouTube food videos go beyond ‘how-to-cook’ content by focusing on practices of excessive and transgressive preparation or consumption of food: or what I characterise as ‘carnivalesque’ food videos. In this chapter, I take up feminist new materialism theory to examine the ways in which these videos draw on gendered concepts of food and embodiment, and work to generate and circulate powerful affective forces. In my analysis, I present two case studies of carnivalesque food YouTube videos: the ‘cheat day’ videos created by fitness and nutrition influencer Stephanie Buttermore and the cooking videos that feature on the ‘bro’-style Epic Meal Time channel. I contend that the expression and appreciation of excessive food preparation or consumption in these videos offer a way for content creators and their audiences to express and celebrate their longing and desire to indulge in the fantasy of revelling in the sensory delights of forbidden food with no guilt or shame. Simultaneously, however, these videos reproduce sexualised stereotypes of hyper-femininities and hyper-masculinities and surface forceful affective undercurrents of anxiety and ambivalence concerning excessive or ‘wrong’ food consumption, revealing the fraught nature of contemporary digital food cultures.

4. You Are What You Instagram: Clean Eating and the Symbolic Representation of Food: Stephanie Alice Baker and Michael James Walsh

Food and dietary choices operate as a central mode of identification, a way to define the self in relation to what we consume. These modes of identity are increasingly communicated on Instagram, using digital photography to present the self visually online. In this chapter, we explore the meanings and discourses around ‘clean eating’ on social media. We perform visual content analysis of food images on Instagram to examine the social and cultural meanings of clean eating and food. Drawing upon and developing cultural approaches to social interaction, we employ the concept of the ‘affirmation ritual’ to understand how status and identity are established online. We argue that eating practices and preferences are displayed on Instagram to represent an ideal self to one’s social network. Despite the capacity for user-generated content to resist and reframe social identities, we contend that the curation of clean eating practices on Instagram reinforces the relationship between diet, status, gender and identity.

5. Healthism and Veganism: Discursive Constructions of Food and Health in an Online Vegan Community: Ellen Scott

The digital realm is a crucial site of discourse and meaning construction for vegans. Online forums are popular vegan spaces, where much discussion concerns the supposed health benefits of vegan diets. In this chapter, I take a cultural sociological perspective, which acknowledges food and health as symbolically embedded with significant cultural meanings. Discourses of food and health within a popular vegan discussion forum are analysed and found to significantly align with ‘healthism’, a moral imperative for health.

6. Working at Self and Wellness: A Critical Analysis of Vegan Vlogs: Virginia Braun and Sophie Carruthers

The idea of eating a particular restricted diet for personal health and wellbeing, or environmental, or ethical and/or religious/cultural reasons, has a long history. Recently, very restrictive eating approaches – such as paleo, clean, and raw diets – have gained traction in and beyond the west. The context for these differs quite radically from previous eras: digital and social media cultures and online modes of dissemination provide an accessible, potentially democratised space in which to present narratives of food, ‘healthy’ eating and the self. Veganism appears regularly in social media, but as a mode of restricted eating potentially occupies a different space. With an interest in the ontological, identity and socio-political work done around such ‘wellness diets,’ we analyse vegan vlogs on YouTube as a digital site of food meaning-making, demonstrating that popular producers – mostly white women – locate their practice primarily within health and wellness discourse, in contrast to more socio-political framings for veganism.

7. A Seat at the Table: Amateur Restaurant Review Bloggers and the Gastronomic Field: Morag Kobez

Digital media have enabled amateur food bloggers to make a significant contribution to the gastronomic field in recent decades. As a prominent subset of foodie culture, ‘serious leisure’ food bloggers construct public identities and participate extensively in the discourse around restaurant dining. This participation encroaches on the discursive territory previously occupied by a small number of elite professional food critics, creating a hierarchy of cultural intermediaries in a larger and more contested gastronomic field with diffuse boundaries. While amateurs continue to take cues from professional critics, evidence shows that they apply robust ethical standards in their work. Evidence also demonstrates that they are motivated by passion and enjoyment, rather than being driven by commercial considerations – despite assertions by professionals to the contrary. As such, they may be considered agents and cultural intermediaries in the gastronomic field, alongside professionals. This marks a profound transformation of the field brought about by the proliferation of online and digital media.

8. I See Your Expertise and Raise You Mine: Social Media Foodscapes and the Rise of the Celebrity Chef: Pia Rowe and Ellen Grady

In the post-truth era reflected in much of the contemporary media and political landscape, there has been a rise in the number of self-proclaimed health experts, utilising social media to promote their views. Anyone, regardless of their professional background, can occupy this space. As an example, some ‘celebrity chefs’ actively construct and mediate discourses about both ‘good food’ and who should be trusted as authorities on the topics of nutrition and health. While overtly appearing to promote good health, these experts can publicise potentially harmful messages, particularly when their influence in public health debates can surpass that of qualified health practitioners. Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans exemplifies this new development. Best known for his paleo diet advocacy, Evans repeatedly challenges the Australian Dietary Guidelines (NHMRC 2013), seeking to replace them with his own. Using illustrative examples from both Evans’ own Facebook posts, as well as from mainstream media coverage reporting on Evans over a one-year period around the publication of his controversial co-authored book Bubba Yum Yum, we examine the self-construction of expertise in the digital age and discuss the celebrity influencers’ role in the contemporary landscape of mediated food governance.

9. ‘Crazy for Carcass’: Sarah Wilson, Foodie-Waste Femininity, and Digital Whiteness: Maud Perrier and Elaine Swan

In this chapter, we examine the food waste blog posts of Sarah Wilson, an Australian anti sugar and domestic food waste avoidance author and campaigner. To date, feminist food studies and food waste studies have neglected the digital representations of food waste and femininity, and in particular, intersections with class, race and whiteness. Our analysis shows how Wilson constructs what we call a foodie-waste femininity that mobilises repertoires of white bourgeois control, discipline and purity through her visual and verbal texts on her blog and her response to a Mail Online article. We show the ways in which Wilson’s foodie waste persona and the scorn it generates is premised on the racialised and classed histories of hygiene and cleanliness and of leftovers as contagious and contaminated, rendering her foodie waste femininity as fragile and unstable.

10. Are You Local? Digital Inclusion in Participatory Foodscapes: Alana Mann

The local food movement is the target of considerable critique for its failure to include socially excluded groups and individuals who experience systemic barriers to food access in its activities and concerns. Digital applications promoting local food frequently mirror what Prody (2013) refers to as the ‘monocultural rhetoric’ of the movement, which ignores cultural and socioeconomic differences and ethical issues concerning local, and global, food production systems (see also Moore & Swisher, 2015). This chapter presents a case for digital platforms and practices that not only challenge popular local food framings that reflect middle-class values and proclivities but also address wider questions of food justice. I argue that while digital technologies accelerate the capacity of food-sharing ecosystems and other food distribution platforms to contribute to community building and social connectivity, they rarely incorporate the voices of the most food insecure who often experience severe and multiple disadvantage and social exclusion.  A better understanding of the relationship between digital and social exclusion can inform the development of technologies that build the capacity of food insecure individuals to develop connectedness and engage in the co-creation of participatory foodscapes in their communities.

11. Visioning Food and Community Through the Lens of Social Media: Karen Cross

Food consumption has long formed an important part of community making and this is apparent also within the development of digital food cultures. This chapter provides a specific case example of urban regeneration set within the region of South London, demonstrating how digital identities and practices infiltrate the market space. In the chapter, I reflect on some of the problems that arise in the popularising of alternative food networks and their role in the reconstruction of community-based forms of consumption. I interrogate in particular the urban investments of new networks and market spaces and consider how they impact on community-based food consumption. Reflecting on how the language and aesthetics of social media provide a new frame for ‘visioning’ food and community, my discussion also considers how network imaginaries contribute to local planning and policy-making strategies and the wider implications these have for the future of food and community.

12. Connected Eating: Servitising the Human Body through Digital Food Technologies: Suzan Boztepe and Martin Berg

Over the past few years, a new breed of digital food technologies has emerged. Utilising interconnected sensors, photo recognition, machine learning and artificial intelligence, these technologies provide so-called smart recommendations on eating right based on perceived individual needs. Using critical content analysis, this chapter analyses the ways in which three digital technology businesses present themselves and their offerings online. In so doing, we examine their marketing materials, such as websites, to unpack the underlying assumptions of their creators and the projected relationship between digital food technologies and healthy eating. The findings show that the business logic of digital food technologies induces servitisation of the human body through constant flow of food data. This logic favours and promotes an understanding of the human body as an entity that could be optimised through perceptively accurate nutritional data and standardised food. How this in turn prescribes highly personalised and controlled eating practices is discussed.

13. From Silicon Valley to Table: Solving Food Problems by Making Food Disappear: Markéta Dolejšová

From cooking, shopping, and growing to dining and dieting, digital technology has become a frequent companion of our day-to-day food practices. The diversity of products and services available on the food-tech market is broad, ranging from smart kitchenware to diet tracking apps and ‘biohacked’ food products. Investments in food-technology innovation are led by the corporate sector of Silicon Valley ‘foodpreneurs’ who started designing solutions for everyday food problems as well as complex food system issues. These food-tech solutions present opportunities for efficient food practices but also challenges to existing sociocultural frameworks of food production and consumption. In this chapter, I illustrate such contradictions through the example of Complete Foods — a powder-based food replacement originating from the Silicon Valley startup realm that enables quantified data-driven control over one’s diet. I discuss my three-year ethnographic study of the Complete Foods community and outline the risks and opportunities that the diet presents to day-to-day lives of its members. I frame my findings within the Silicon Valley food-tech innovation context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Digitised quarantine: a new form of health dataveillance

isolation

Most social analyses of the use of personal health data for dataveillance (watching and monitoring people using information gathered about them) have largely focused on people who engage in voluntary self-tracking to promote or manage their health and fitness. With the outbreak of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus), a new form of health dataveillance has emerged. I call it ‘digitised quarantine’.

Traditional quarantine measures, involving the physical isolation of people deemed to be infected with a contagious illness or those who have had close contact with infected people, have been employed for centuries as a disease control measure. Histories of medicine and public health outline that quarantine (from the Italian for ’40 days’ – often the length of the isolation period) was practised as early as the 14th century as a way of protecting people living in European coastal cities from the plague brought by visiting ships.

With the advent of COVID-19, quarantine has been actively used in many of the locations that have experienced large numbers of cases. Millions of people have already been placed in isolation. Quarantine measures have included self-isolation, involving people keeping themselves at home for the required 14-day period, as well as imposed isolation, such as requiring people to stay in dedicated quarantine stations, and large-scale travel bans and lock-downs of whole large cities. Quarantine began with lock-downs of Wuhan and nearby cities in the Chinese province of Hubei. At the time of writing, cases have been discovered in many other countries, often with identified hot-spots of contagion around identifiable places and regions, including a South Korean church, a north Italian region and a cruise ship docked in Japan.

Side-by-side with these centuries-old measures, in some locations, digital technologies and digital data analytics have been taken up as ways of monitoring people, identifying those who are infected and tracking their movements to ensure that they adhere to self-isolation restrictions for the length of the quarantine period. In China, people were prevented from leaving their homes if they had been identified as infected with COVID-19 by a digitised rating system on a phone app that coded them ‘red’. Chinese government agencies also released a ‘close contact detector’ app that alerted people if they had been in close proximity to someone infected with the virus. In some Chinese cities, local government authorities have brought in monitoring measures using facial recognition data and smartphone data tracking combined with information derived by requesting people to enter details about their health and travel history into online forms when visiting public places.

It is not only Chinese authorities who are experimenting with digitised forms of identifying infection risk and enforcing isolation. In the Australian city of Adelaide, two people identified as having COVID-19 were placed under voluntary home isolation, their movements monitored by the police using their smartphone metadata. It is notable that the police emphasised that this is the same dataveillance system used for tracking offenders in criminal investigations. As is the case with traditional quarantine measures, the freedoms and autonomy of those deemed to be infected or at risk of infection are in tension with public health goals to control epidemics.  The types of digitised monitoring of people’s movements using their smartphones or enforced notifications to complete online questionnaires are redolent of the measures that are used in the criminal justice system, where employing electronic monitoring technologies such as digital tracking bands has been a feature of controlling offenders’ movements once released from a custodial sentence.

These resonances with law enforcement should perhaps not be surprising, given that public health acts in many countries allow for the enforced isolation or even imposing significant fines or incarceration of people deemed to pose a risk to others because they are infectious or identified as being in a high-risk category of transmitting disease. There is a recent history of countries such as Singapore using technologies such as surveillance cameras and electronic tags for controlling the spread of SARS in 2003. These practices have been called into question by scholars interested in investigating the implications for human rights.

Since then, the opportunities to conduct close monitoring of people using their smartphones and online interactions have vastly expanded. The use of detailed data sets generated from diverse sources in these novel digitised quarantine measures leads to a range of new human rights challenges. Such monitoring may be viewed as a ‘soft’ form of policing infection, in which physical isolation measures are combined with dataveillance. However, underlying the apparent convenience offered by digitised quarantine are significant failures. One difficulty is the potential for the data sets and algorithmic processing used to calculate COVID-19 infection risk to be inaccurate, unfairly confining people to isolation and allowing them no opportunity to challenge the decision made by the app. Examples of such inaccuracies have already been reported by Chinese citizens subjected to these measures.  As one man claimed: “I felt I was at the mercy of big data,” … “I couldn’t go anywhere. There’s no one I could turn to for help, except answer bots.”

At a broader level, another problem raised by digitised quarantine measures is the ever-expanding reach into people’s private lives and movements by health authorities and other government agencies that they portend. This function creep requires sustained examination for its implications for human rights. The data-utopian visions promoted by those seeking to impose digitised quarantine may well lead to data hubris when their inaccuracies, biases and injustices are exposed.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Trent Yarby for alerting me to two of the news stories upon which I drew for this post.

My 2019 publications

Books

Reports

Lupton, D. (2019) The Australian Woman and Digital Health Project: Comprehensive Report of Findings. Canberra: News & Media Research Centre.

Book chapters

  • Lupton, D. (2019) Vitalities and visceralities: alternative body/food politics in digital media. In Phillipov, M. and Kirkwood, K. (eds), Alternative Food Politics: From the Margins to the Mainstream. Routledge: London, pp. 151-168.
  • Lupton, D. (2019) Digital sociology. In Germov, J. and Poole, M. (eds), Public Sociology: An Introduction to Australian Society, 4th St Leonards: Allen & Unwin., pp. 475-492.

Journal articles

My empirical research on self-tracking practices

There has been a lot of interest in self-tracking and the quantified self over the past half decade or so. My book The Quantified Self set out to present a sociological perspective on self-tracking using a predominantly Foucauldian analysis. In the book, I examined the potential implications for understanding selfhood, identity and embodiment using metricised and digitised self-monitoring practices.

I have noticed that I am often referred by other scholars writing about the sociocultural dimensions of self-tracking as someone who predominantly theorises about these practices rather than actually investigating how people are engaging in self-tracking. I find this perplexing, because since The Quantified Self came out, I have published the findings of several empirical studies on self-trackers’ practices, including research with women who use pregnancy or infant monitoring apps, cyclists and people who track aspects of their lives such as their food intake, fitness levels, finances and social relationships.

In this research, I have sought to combine social theory (and especially that from vital materialism scholarship) with my findings. Some of this research is discussed in my new book Data Selves, designed to complement The Quantified Self. There are also numerous book chapters and journal articles that have now been published from these studies. They are as follows:

  • Lupton, D. (2016) The use and value of digital media information for pregnancy and early motherhood: a focus group study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 16(171), online, available at http://bmcpregnancychildbirth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12884-016-0971-3
  • Lupton, D. and Pedersen, S. (2016) An Australian survey of women’s use of pregnancy and parenting apps. Women and Birth, 29(4), 368—375.
  • Sumartojo, S., Pink, S., Lupton, D. and Heyes Labond, C. (2016) The affective intensities of datafied space. Emotion, Space and Society, 21, 33—40.
  • Pink, S., Sumartojo, S., Lupton, D. and Heyes Labond, C. (2017) Mundane data: the routines, contingencies and accomplishments of digital living. Big Data & Society, 4(1), online, available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/2053951717700924
  • Lupton, D. (2017) Personal data practices in the age of lively data. In Daniels, J., Gregory, K. and McMillan Cottom, T. (eds), Digital Sociologies. London: Policy Press, pp. 335—350.
  • Lupton, D. (2017) ‘It just gives me a bit of peace of mind’: Australian women’s use of digital media for pregnancy and early motherhood. Societies, 7(3), online, available at http://www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/7/3/25/htm
  • Pink, S., Sumartojo, S., Lupton, D. and Heyes Labond, C. (2017) Empathetic technologies: digital materiality and video ethnography. Visual Studies, 32(4), 371-381.
  • Lupton, D., Pink, S., Heyes Labond and Sumartojo, S. (2018) Personal data contexts, data sense and self-tracking cycling. International Journal of Communication, 11, online, available at http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/5925/2258
  • Lupton, D. (2018) ‘I just want it to be done, done, done!’ Food tracking apps, affects and agential capacities. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction, 2(2), online, available at http://www.mdpi.com/2414-4088/2/2/29/htm
  • 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) Better understanding about what’s going on’: young Australians’ use of digital technologies for health and fitness. Sport, Education and Society, online first. doi:1080/13573322.2018.155566
  • Lupton, D. and Maslen, S. (2019) How women use digital technologies for health: qualitative interview and focus group study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 21(1), online, available at https://www.jmir.org/2019/1/e11481/
  • Salmela, T., Valtonen, A. and Lupton, D. (2019) The affective circle of harassment and enchantment: reflections on the ŌURA ring as an intimate research device. Qualitative Inquiry, 25(3), 260-270.
  • Lupton, D. (2019) ‘It’s made me a lot more aware’: a new materialist analysis of health self-tracking. Media International Australia, 17(1), 66-79.
  • Lupton, D. (2019) The thing-power of the human-app health assemblage: thinking with vital materialism. Social Theory & Health, 17(2), 125-139.
  • Lupton, D. (2019) Australian women’s use of health and fitness apps and wearable devices: a feminist new materialism analysis. Feminist Media Studies, online first. doi:10.1080/14680777.2019.1637916
  • Lupton, D. (2019) Data mattering and self-tracking: what can personal data do? Continuum, online first. doi:10.1080/10304312.2019.1691149