Social media and self-representation in health and medical domains

Funny-Meme-about-Depression-4-300x300This is an excerpt from chapter 3 (on digitised embodiment) in my forthcoming book Digital Health: Critical and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, due to be published this August – details here.

It is not only medical technologies that have contributed to new forms of digitised embodiment. Many popular forums facilitate the uploading of images and other forms of bodily representations to the internet for others to view. Pregnancy, childbirth and infant development represent major topics for self-representation and image sharing on social media. Since the early years of the internet, online forums and discussion boards have provided places for parents (and particularly women) to seek information and advice about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting as well as share their own experiences. Apps can be now be used to track pregnancy stages, symptoms and appointments and document time-lapse selfies featuring the expansion of pregnant women’s ‘baby bumps’. Foetal ultrasound images are routinely posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube by excited expectant parents (Thomas and Lupton, 2015; Lupton and Thomas, 2015; Lupton, 2016).

Some parents continue the documentation of their new baby’s lives by sharing photographs and videos of the moment of their birth (Longhurst, 2009) and milestones (first steps, words uttered and so on) on social media. Wearable devices and monitoring apps allow parents to document their infants’ biometrics, such as their sleeping, feeding, breathing, body temperature and growth patterns (Lupton and Williamson, 2017). The genre of ‘mommy blogs’ also offers opportunities for women to upload images of themselves while pregnant and their babies and young children, as well as providing detailed descriptions of their experiences of pregnancy and motherhood (Morrison, 2011). These media provide a diverse array of forums for portraying and describing details infants’ and young children’s embodiment. A survey of 2,000 British parents’ use of social media for sharing their young children’s images conducted by an internet safety organisation estimated that the average parent would have posted almost 1,000 images to Facebook (and to a much lesser extent, Instagram) by the time their child reached five (Knowthenet 2015). Contemporary children, therefore, now often have an established digital profile before they are even born offering an archive of their physical development and growth across their lifespans.

People with medical conditions are now able to upload descriptions and images of their bodies to social media to share with the world. YouTube offers a platform for such images, but they are also shared on other social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest. Pinterest offers a multitude of humorous memes and images with inspirational slogans designed to provide support to people with various conditions such as chronic illness. Humorous memes include one with a drawing of a young woman sitting on a bed with her hand over her face and the words ‘Why are there never any good side effects? Just once I’d like to read a medication bottle that says, “May cause extreme sexiness”’. Other images about chronic illness are less positive, used to express people’s despair, pain or frustration in struggling with conditions such as autoimmune diseases, endometriosis and diabetes. Examples include a meme featuring a photo of a person with head bowed down (face obscured) and the words ‘When your chronic illness triggers depression’ and another showing a young woman’s face transposed over an outline of her body with the text: ‘The worst thing you can do to a person with an invisible illness is make them feel like they need to prove how sick they are.’

‘Selfie’ portraits enable people to photograph themselves in various forms of embodiment. There is now a genre of selfies showing subjects experiencing ill-health or medical treatment. These include self-portraits taken by celebrities in hospital receiving treatment for injuries. A larger category of health and medical-related selfies include those that show people in a clinical or hospital setting undergoing treatment, experiencing symptoms or their recovery after surgery. Among the social media platforms available for such representation, Tumblr is favoured as a forum for posting more provocative images that challenge accepted norms of embodiment. One example is Karolyn Gehrig, who uses the #HospitalGlam hashtag when posting selfies featuring her self-identified ‘queer/disabled’ body in hospital settings. Gehrig has a chronic illness requiring regular hospital visits, and uses the selfie genre to draw attention to what it is like to live with this kind of condition. The photographs she posts of herself include portraits in hospital waiting and treatment rooms in glamour-style poses. She engages in this practice as a form of seeking agency and control in settings that many people find alienating, shaming and uncertain (Tembeck, 2016).

People who upload selfies or other images of themselves or status updates about their behaviour on social media are engaging in technologies of the self. They seek to present a certain version of self-identity to the other users of the sites as part of strategies of ethical self-formation (van Dijck, 2013; Sauter, 2014; Tembeck, 2016). In the context of the ‘like economy’ of social media (which refers to the positive responses that users receive from other users on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) (Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013), users of these platforms are often highly aware of how they represent themselves. This may involve sharing information about a medical condition or self-tracking fitness or weight-loss data (Stragier et al., 2015) as a way of demonstrating that the person is adhering to the ideal subject position of responsibilised self-care and health promotion.

It can be difficult for users to juggle competing imperatives when sharing information about themselves online. Young women, in particular, are faced with negotiating self-representation practices on social media that conform to accepted practices of fun-loving femininity, attractive sexuality or disciplined self-control over their diet and body weight but do not stray into practices that may open them to disparagement for being ‘slutty’, fat, too drunk or otherwise lacking self-control, too vain or self-obsessed or physically unattractive (Hutton et al., 2016; Ferreday, 2003; Brown and Gregg, 2012).  It is important to acknowledge that as part of self-representation, people may also seek to use their social media forums to resist health promotion messages: by showing people enjoying using illicit drugs or alcoholic drinking to excess, for example. Fat activists have also benefited from the networking opportunities offered by blogs and social media to work against fat shaming and promote positive representations of fat bodies (Cooper, 2011; Smith et al., 2013; Dickins et al., 2011).

More controversially, those individuals who engage in proscribed body modification practices, such as self-harm, steroid use for body-building or the extreme restriction of food intake (as in ‘pro-ana’ and ‘thinspiration’ communities) also make use of social media sites to connect with likeminded individuals (Boero and Pascoe, 2012; Center for Innovative Public Health Research, 2014; Fox et al., 2005; Smith et al., 2013). Most social media platforms have polices in place to prohibit these kinds of interactions, but in practice many users manage to evade them. The platforms have a difficult task, because they want to support people’s attempts to communicate with each other about their management of and recovery from health conditions like self-harm or eating disorders but are loath to be viewed as promoting the efforts of those resisting recovery and promoting these behaviours. Their attempts to police the representation of nude human bodies for fear of contributing to pornography are also controversial. Until it changed its policy in 2014, Facebook was the subject of trenchant critique for censoring photographs that women have tried to share on the platform portraying them breastfeeding their infants because of concerns that they were showing their nipples, a body part that Facebook usually prohibits in users’ posts because they are deemed to be obscene. Facebook’s new policy also allowed mastectomy survivors to post images of their post-operative bare torsos, even when nipples were displayed (Chemaly, 2014).


Boero N and Pascoe CJ. (2012) Pro-anorexia communities and online interaction: bringing the pro-ana body online. Body & Society 18: 27-57.

Brown R and Gregg M. (2012) The pedagogy of regret: Facebook, binge drinking and young women. Continuum 26: 357-369.

Center for Innovative Public Health Research. (2014) Self-harm websites and teens who visit them. Available at

Chemaly S. (2014) #FreeTheNipple: Facebook changes breastfeeding mothers photo policy. Huffpost Parents. Available at

Cooper C. (2011) Fat lib: how fat activism expands the obesity debate. Debating Obesity. Springer, 164-191.

Dickins M, Thomas SL, King B, et al. (2011) The role of the fatosphere in fat adults’ responses to obesity stigma: a model of empowerment without a focus on weight Loss. Qualitative Health Research 21: 1679-1691.

Ferreday D. (2003) Unspeakable bodies: erasure, embodiment and the pro-ana community. International Journal of Cultural Studies 6: 277-295.

Fox N, Ward K and O’Rourke A. (2005) Pro-anorexia, weight-loss drugs and the internet: an ‘anti-recovery’ explanatory model of anorexia. Sociology of Health & Illness 27: 944-971.

Gerlitz C and Helmond A. (2013) The like economy: social buttons and the data-intensive web. New Media & Society 15: 1348-1365.

Hutton F, Griffin C, Lyons A, et al. (2016) ‘Tragic girls’ and ‘crack whores’: alcohol, femininity and Facebook. Feminism & Psychology 26: 73-93.

Longhurst R. (2009) YouTube: a new space for birth? Feminist Review 93: 46-63.

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

Lupton D. (2016) Mastering your fertility: the digitised reproductive citizen In: McCosker A, Vivienne S and Johns A (eds) Negotiating Digital Citizenship: Control, Contest and Culture. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lupton D and Thomas GM. (2015) Playing pregnancy: the ludification and gamification of expectant motherhood in smartphone apps. M/C Journal, 18. Available at

Lupton D and Williamson B. (2017) The datafied child: the dataveillance of children and implications for their rights. New Media & Society.

Morrison A. (2011) “Suffused by feeling and affect”: the intimate public of personal mommy blogging. Biography 34: 37-55.

Sauter T. (2014) ‘What’s on your mind?’ Writing on Facebook as a tool for self-formation. New Media & Society 16: 823-839.

Smith N, Wickes R and Underwood M. (2013) Managing a marginalised identity in pro-anorexia and fat acceptance cybercommunities. Journal of Sociology.

Stragier J, Evens T and Mechant P. (2015) Broadcast yourself: an exploratory study of sharing physical activity on social networking sites. Media International Australia 155: 120-129.

Tembeck T. (2016) Selfies of ill health: online autopathographic photography and the dramaturgy of the everyday. Social Media + Society, 2. Available at

Thomas GM and Lupton D. (2015) Threats and thrills: pregnancy apps, risk and consumption. Health, Risk & Society 17: 495-509.

van Dijck J. (2013) ‘You have one identity’: performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn. Media, Culture & Society 35: 199-215.



Tips for qualitative researchers seeking funding – what NOT to leave out of your grant applications

It is grant reviewing season and I’ve been reading through some very interesting applications from some accomplished qualitative researchers in the social sciences and media studies. The rationale and background for projects are usually very well described and justified, as are the track records of the applicants.

But I’ve seen some common areas across several of the applications that need more detail. These are:

  1. There is often not enough (or sometimes even any) information about the approach taken to analysing the qualitative data you are collecting. Simply saying you are ‘using NVivo to analyse the data’ and leaving it at that is not enough. NVivo seems to have become a magic word to use to explain and justify qualitative data analysis. But it is just a data management tool. I want to know what you are going to do with it. There are many approaches to analysing qualitative data. Which approach are you using? Have you had previous experience with this approach? Please justify the reason for your approach and provide some information about what you will be looking for in the data, and why.
  2. If you are recruiting research participants for interviews, focus groups or other types of participation, please provide details of whether you have used your recruitment methods before and how successful they were. I know from experience that recruiting participants can be difficult and time-consuming, and achieving this successfully is crucial to the feasibility of your project. I would like you to explain to me more carefully how you are going to find people, and how you will keep them involved if they are required for more than one activity or you are asking them to be involved over quite a long time in the project.
  3. This issue is particularly important if you are proposing to recruit hard-to-reach or marginalised social groups, and also high-status groups (such as busy professionals, for whom time is money). Here you need to provide even more information about how you will successfully recruit these participants and commit them to be involved. What will persuade them to be part of your study?
  4. Which leads on to the ethics of recruiting participants from marginalised groups, or those you wish to engage in discussions about potentially distressing experiences. How will you persuade these people to want to speak to you? How will you protect them from harm, if you are raising sensitive and distressing issues and inviting them to discuss them with you? How will you protect yourself and other researchers involved in the project from the distress you may yourselves feel at discussing sensitive and very personal issues which may be very sad or otherwise confronting for all involved? I am concerned to see that often these very important issues are not discussed in enough detail, or are even glossed over, as if the applicants do not consider them important or have not considered their implications.
  5. Many qualitative researchers now make statements suggesting that their research will have impact outside universities. Yet here again, often not enough fine details are provided to convince assessors and funders how feasible these claims are. Please tell us more about how this impact will be achieved.
  6. And finally … many major funding bodies now mandate that the publications generated from the projects they fund should be made available open access. Yet very few qualitative researchers demonstrate any awareness of this, or describe how they will meet these requirements. Here again, more detail is required. Will you be depositing your publications into your university’s e-repository? Will you need to ask for funding in your budget to pay journals to publish your accepted manuscript as open access? Please explain your strategy.

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.

Design sociology part 1: a research agenda

Over the past few years I have become interested in experimenting with approaches to social research and theorising that I am calling ‘design sociology’. I think that design approaches have much to offer the development of novel modes of sociological inquiry, especially for research that seeks to understand people’s engagements with objects and systems, better engage publics and other stakeholders, work towards social change, and identify and intervene in futures. One example of a project in which I have used design methods is a study on public understanding of big data with Mike Michael (see here and here for publications from this). I am now working with a professional design research studio to develop methods for new projects.

While not all design approaches are relevant to the interests and preoccupations of sociological researchers, many designers and HCI researchers have become progressively open to incorporating sociological and anthropological concepts and theories in their work. For their part, anthropologists have begun to realise the possibilities of taking up design approaches. Design anthropology as a sub-discipline of anthropology is new but rapidly evolving, as evidenced by the publication of several edited volumes since 2011: Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, Design and Anthropology, Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Digital Materialities: Design and Anthropology and Design Anthropological Futures. As outlined in these books and other design anthropology literature, like sociologists, anthropologists are focused on developing concepts and ideas about the way social groups operate. They tend to be oriented towards the past and the present rather than the future, and on documentation rather than social change. Design anthropology takes a more applied, future-oriented and interventionist approach than do other modes of anthropological inquiry.

With some notable exceptions, thus far sociologists have not been as open to engaging with design and HCI perspectives – or indeed, even with design anthropology. Design sociology as a term is hardly ever used. Yet design sociology as a field of research can fruitfully incorporate the strengths and foci of design-oriented approaches while maintaining the critical and sociocultural emphasis of traditional sociological enquiry. Sociologists can productively build on the existing critiques of design thinking processes that have been raised by designers and HCI researchers. From a conceptual and theoretical level, design sociology can also extend the literature on design that represented the design process and design artefacts as sociomaterial phenomena that are situated within specific sociocultural and political contexts. It can develop insights into how objects and systems are designed, developed, promoted to users and taken up by users and also retain a reflexive perspective on the use of design research methods as themselves context-specific and discursive research devices, involving multiple and often contested knowledge claims that can work to serve or support certain interests and futures over others.

In my next blog post I will I review key terms and approaches in design research that offer possibilities for applied sociology.

Four talks in Europe, June 2017

I’ll be giving four talks in Europe in June this year. Here are the details and the links to the events.

Call for abstracts – Digital Food Cultures symposium


I am convening a one-day symposium on Digital Food Cultures, to be held at the University of Canberra on Friday 20 October 2017. If you are interested in presenting at this symposium, the call for abstracts is now out.

This symposium is directed at the social, cultural, political and ethical dimensions of representations and practices related to using digital technologies for food production, consumption, preparation, eating out, promoting healthy diets or weight loss, marketing, ethical consumption, food activism and environmental and sustainability politics.

Topics may include, but are not limited to food-related apps, online videos, GIFs and memes, other platforms, digital food-related games, wearable devices, digital food data and 3D printed food technologies.

I plan to edit a special journal issue from selected symposium papers.

Please send abstracts (with your name, university affiliation and title of paper) of 150-200 words to me by 1 June 2017 at

15 top tips for revising journal articles

  1. Take a deep breath. No-one likes to have their precious writing critiqued, and it can be very easy to feel defensive and annoyed. But remember a condition of academic writing is that we expose ourselves to critique. We must learn to accept this and realise how the review process can help us.
  2. Feel gratitude for the work performed on your behalf by the reviewers and editors. Although you may not like some of their feedback, nearly all (and yes, there are some nasty exceptions) have reviewed your work in the spirit of academic generosity and have taken precious time from their own work to do this. If they have performed the review constructively, they deserve your thanks and appreciation.
  3. See the revision process as a way to make your work the best it can be, and a challenge to push yourself to improve it.
  4. If the editor has given you a decision of ‘revise and resubmit’, always attempt this, however extensive the work required of you. There is a very good chance that if you revise your article competently it will be accepted.
  5. If the editor has rejected your article, acknowledge your inevitable feelings of disappointment and frustration (or even murderous rage!) but then move on. Think about where else you can resubmit it. Consider first the comments made by the reviewers and decide whether you should address some of these before submitting elsewhere to enhance your chances of success next time around.
  6. Bite the bullet. Try not to leave the revisions or submission to another journal too long – it can be easy to keep putting this job off, but it must be done!
  7. If the article has been written with other authors, decide who will take leadership on the revisions. This should usually be the person who led the writing of the original manuscript. The lead author should take on as much of the revision work as they can, and then share the revised version with the other author/s for their contributions and feedback.
  8. Block out a good chunk of time in which you will be able to begin work on the revisions. Choose a time of day if possible at which you know you will be feeling the most mentally alert. There is no denying that you have a demanding task ahead of you.
  9. Don’t rush things. Take as much time as you need to complete it properly.
  10. Now that you are mentally prepared … go back and read your submitted manuscript. You will most likely have forgotten most of what you wrote and this is a good chance to read it with fresh eyes.
  11. Then go back to the email from the journal editors with the reviewers’ comments. Copy and paste the reviewers’ comments in to a new Word document. Then go through and isolate each comment which suggests or requests a revision. Then read each comment carefully.
  12. Start to go through your original manuscript and begin addressing those points you think require revisions. It is often easiest to address the minor revisions first. In your ‘response to reviewers’ document, write your responses under each separate point as you go. Your response should explain the changes you have made. If you disagree with a suggested change, you are entirely within your rights to state this and explain why.
  13. Highlight changes in your manuscript with bold or coloured highlighting so that the editor and reviewers can easily see where you added or significantly altered material. Don’t use the track changes function (unless this has been specifically requested by the editor), as track changes can leave the manuscript looking very messy and difficult to read.
  14. Once you think you have conducted the revisions to the best of your ability, put the revised version aside for at least a day. Come back to it and read it through again. Read your ‘response to reviewers’ document again. Make any further changes you deem necessary.
  15. Take another deep breath … and resubmit your article. Good luck!

My publications in 2016




Lupton, D. (2016) The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Edited special issues

Digitised health, medicine and risk’, Health, Risk & Society (volume 17, issue 7-8), 2016 (my editorial for this issue is available here).

Book chapters

Lupton, D. (2016) Digitized health promotion: risk and personal responsibility for health in the Web 2.0 era. In Davis, J. and Gonzalez, A. M. (eds), To Fix or To Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine. New York: New York University Press, pp. 152—76. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital risk society. In Zinn, J., Burgess, A. and Alemanno, A. (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 301—9. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) You are your data: self-tracking practices and concepts of data. In Selke, Stefan (ed.), Lifelogging: Digital Self-Tracking: Between Disruptive Technology and Cultural Change. Zurich: Springer, pp. 61—79. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital health technologies and digital data: new ways of monitoring, measuring and commodifying human bodies. In Olleros, F. X. and Zhegu, M. (eds), Research Handbook of Digital Transformations. New York: Edward Elgar, pp. 84—102. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Personal data practices in the age of lively data. In Daniels, J., Gregory, K. and McMillan Cottom, T. (eds), Digital Sociologies. London: Policy Press, 335—350. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) ‘Mastering your fertility’: the digitised reproductive citizen. In McCosker, A., Vivienne, S. and Johns, A. (eds), Negotiating Digital Citizenship: Control, Contest and Culture. London: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 81—93. (A preprint version is available here.)

Journal articles

Thomas, G.M. and Lupton, D. (2016) Threats and thrills: pregnancy apps, risk and consumption. Health, Risk & Society, 17(7-8), 495—509.

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital companion species and eating data: implications for theorising digital data-human assemblages. Big Data & Society, 3(1), online, available at

Lupton, D. (2016) Towards critical health studies: reflections on two decades of research in Health and the way forward. Health, 20(1), 49—61.

Michael, M. and Lupton, D. (2016) Toward a manifesto for ‘a public understanding of big data’. Public Understanding of Science, 25(1), 104—116.

Lupton, D. (2016) The diverse domains of quantified selves: self-tracking modes and dataveillance. Economy & Society, 45(1), 101—122.

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

Lupton, D., Pedersen, S. and Thomas, G.M. (2016) Parenting and digital media: from the early web to contemporary digital society. Sociology Compass, 10(8), 730—743.

Lupton, D. and Pedersen, S. (2016) An Australian survey of women’s use of pregnancy and parenting apps. Women and Birth, 29, 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.

Pedersen, S. and Lupton, D. (2016) ‘What are you feeling right now?’ Communities of maternal feeling on Mumsnet. Emotion, Space & Society, online ahead of print:

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital media and body weight, shape, and size: an introduction and review. Fat Studies, online ahead of print:

Lupton, D. (2016) Lively devices, lively data and lively leisure studies. Leisure Studies, 35(6), 709—711.