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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credits: Author

My 2021 publications

Books

Lupton, D., Southerton, C., Clark, M. and Watson, A. (2021) The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociocultural Analysis. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Edited books and special issues

Lupton, D. and Willis, K. (eds) (2021) The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge.

‘In and beyond the smart home’ special issue. Convergence (volume 27, issue 5), 2021.

Journal articles

Lupton, D. (2021) Young people’s use of digital health in the Global North: narrative review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, available online at https://www.jmir.org/2021/1/e18286/

Lupton, D. and Southerton, C. (2021) The thing-power of the Facebook assemblage: why do users stay on the platform? Journal of Sociology, 57(4), 969-985.

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Not the real me’: social imaginaries of personal data profiling. Cultural Sociology, 15(1), 3-21.

Watson, A. and Lupton, D. (2021) Tactics, affects and agencies in digital privacy narratives: a story completion study. Online Information Review, 45(1), 138-156.

Watson, A., Lupton, D. and Michael, M. (2021) Enacting intimacy and sociality at a distance in the COVID-19 crisis: the sociomaterialities of home-based communication technologies. Media International Australia, 178(1), 136-150.

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Things that matter’: poetic inquiry and more-than-human health literacy. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 13(2), 267-282.

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘The internet both reassures and terrifies’: exploring the more-than-human worlds of health information using the story completion method. Medical Humanities, 47(1), 68-77.

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Next generation PE?’ A sociomaterial approach to digitised health and physical education. Sport, Education and Society, online first doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2021.1890570

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Sharing is caring’: Australian self-trackers’ concepts and practices of personal data sharing and privacy. Frontiers in Digital Health, 3(15). Available online at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fdgth.2021.649275/full

Lupton, D. and Lewis, S. (2021) Learning about COVID-19: a qualitative interview study of Australians’ use of information sources. BMC Public Health, available online at https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10743-7

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Honestly no, I’ve never looked at it’: teachers’ understandings and practices related to students’ personal data in digitised health and physical education. Learning, Media and Technology, 46(3), 281-293Hjorth, L. and Lupton, D. (2021) Digitised caring intimacies: more-than-human intergenerational care in Japan. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 24(4), 584-602.

Lupton, D. and Watson, A. (2021) Towards more-than-human digital data studies: developing research-creation methods. Qualitative Research, 21(4), 463-480.

Watson, A., Lupton, D. and Michael, M. (2021) The COVID digital home assemblage: transforming the home into a work space during the crisis. Convergence, 27(5), 1207-1221.

Downing, L., Marriott, H. and Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Ninja levels of focus’: therapeutic holding environments and the affective atmospheres of telepsychology during the COVID-19 pandemic. Emotion, Space & Society, 40. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2021.100824

Lupton, D. and Lewis, S. (2021) ‘The day everything changed’: Australians’ COVID-19 risk narratives. Journal of Risk Research, online first, doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2021.1958045

Clark, M. and Lupton, D. (2021) Pandemic fitness assemblages: the sociomaterialities and affective dimensions of exercising at home during the COVID-19 crisis. Convergence, 27(5), 1222-1237.

The Lancet and Financial Times Commission on governing health futures 2030: growing up in a digital world. Kickbusch, I., Piselli, D., Agrawal, A., Balicer, R., Banner, O., Adelhardt, M., Capobianco, E., Fabian, C., Singh Gill, A., Lupton, D., Medhora, R. P., Ndili, N., Ryś, A., Sambuli, N., Settle, D., Swaminathan, S., Morales, J. V., Wolpert, M., Wyckoff, A. W., Xue, L., Bytyqi, A., Franz, C., Gray, W., Holly, L., Neumann, M., Panda, L., Smith, R. D., Georges Stevens, E. A., & Wong, B. L. H. (2021) The Lancet and Financial Times Commission on governing health futures 2030: growing up in a digital world. The Lancet. Available online at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673621018249

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘All at the tap of a button’: mapping the food app landscape. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 24(6), 1360-1381.

Petrie, K., Deady, M., Lupton, D., Crawford, J., Boydell, K. and Harvey. S. (2021) ‘The hardest job I’ve ever done’: a qualitative exploration of the factors affecting junior doctors’ mental health and wellbeing during medical training in Australia. BMC Health Services. Available online at https://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12913-021-07381-5

Book chapters

Lupton, D. (2021) Self-tracking. In Kennerly, M., Frederick, S. and Abel, J.E. (eds), Information: Keywords. Columbia University Press, pp, 187-198.

Lupton, D. (2021) Afterword: future methods for digital food studies. In Leer, J. and Krogager, S.G.S. (eds), Research Methods in Digital Food Studies. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 222-227.

Lupton, D. and Willis, K. (2021) COVID Society: introduction to the book. In Lupton, D. and Willis, K. (eds), The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 3-13.

Lupton, D. (2021) Contextualising COVID-19. In Lupton, D. and Willis, K. (eds), The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 14-24.

Other publications

Lupton, D., Pink, S. and Horst, H. (2021) Living in, with and beyond the ‘smart home’: introduction to the special issue. Convergence, 27(5), 1147-1154.

Watson, A., Clark, M., Southerton, C. and Lupton, D. (2021) Fieldwork at your fingertips: creative methods for social research under lockdown. Nature Career Column, 3 March 2021. Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00566-2

Lupton, D., Pink, S. and Horst, H. (2021) Living in, with and beyond the ‘smart home’: introduction to the special issue. Convergence, 27(5), 1147-1154.

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

 

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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

 

Call for abstracts – special section on ‘Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic’

For those people who feel they might like to contribute their expertise and insights, please see this call for papers for a special section of Health Sociology Review I am editing on sociology and the coronavirus. This is a fast-tracked process designed to get important insights out as quickly as possible.

Health Sociology Review Special Section – Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

Call for abstracts

The current pandemic is unprecedented in modern times. In view of this, Health Sociology Review (HSR) (Q1 journal) has asked Professor Deborah Lupton to guest edit a special section of a forthcoming issue of the journal on Sociology and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic. The emergence of this new virus and its rapid transformation from an epidemic localised to the Chinese city of Wuhan late in 2019 to a pandemic affecting the rest of the world by March 2020 has caused massive disruptions affecting everyday lives, freedom of movement, workplaces, educational institutions, leisure activities and other aspects of social relations across the globe. Many societies have been suddenly faced with the challenge of limiting the spread of the virus to prevent over-load on the healthcare system, often involving significant societal changes such as social isolation measures and travel bans.

In response to these widespread and dramatic changes, HSR will provide a forum for sociological commentary, with a rapid paper submission and review process to ensure that papers are available as quickly as possible. Submissions to this special section are invited. All intending contributors will need to submit an abstract to Professor Lupton to be considered. If they are given the go-ahead, contributors will need to meet the timeline for submission. All full submissions will be peer-reviewed via the usual reviewing processes of the journal and submission does not guarantee publication.

Length and style of submissions and timeframes for this special section have been designed to facilitate rapid review and publication. All accepted pieces will be published online first as soon as they are finalised for publication and then collected in the special section in an issue of HSR, accompanied by a short introduction authored by Lupton.

Pieces need not be standard sociological articles reporting on empirical findings. They can take a range of formats, including commentaries, theoretical/conceptual analyses, media or policy document analysis and autoethnographies.

All submissions must fit the following guidelines:

  • Must be no longer than 4,500 words in length (including abstract, references, tables, figures and endnotes).
  • Must address the social, cultural or political dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic, extending conceptual understanding of this crisis in health sociology.
  • Must make a clear contribution to sociological inquiry relevant to health, but may be informed by conceptual and empirical debates from a broader range of health and social sciences. All submissions must demonstrate methodological rigour, adherence to ethical research principles, and potential for contribution to knowledge in health, health care and wellbeing.
  • Must use the HSR citation style (TF-Standard APA).

To be considered for submission and review for this special section, please email an abstract of 250-300 words to Professor Lupton (d.lupton@unsw.edu.au) by 9 April.

Abstracts will be reviewed and by 17 April, a limited number will be selected to go forward for peer review for the special section. If selected to go forward, contributors must undertake to submit their piece for peer review by 15 May.

 

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).

References

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 http://innovativepublichealth.org/blog/self-harm-websites-and-teens-who-visit-them/.

Chemaly S. (2014) #FreeTheNipple: Facebook changes breastfeeding mothers photo policy. Huffpost Parents. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/freethenipple-facebook-changes_b_5473467.html.

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 http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/1012.

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 http://sms.sagepub.com/content/2/1/2056305116641343.abstract.

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.

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

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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 deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au.

Fat, thin and fit bodies in digital media

 

I have just completed an introduction for a special issue of the journal Fat Studies on digital media and body weight, shape and size. Here’s an edited excerpt from the introduction. (Update: the introduction has now been published, and can be viewed here.)

Numerous researchers have called attention to the ways in which often very negative portrayals of fat embodiment circulate in the popular media. Despite the growing presence of attempts to counter these portrayals, online representations of fat bodies that seek to challenge accepted norms and engage in fat activist politics continue to be far outnumbered by those that continue to stigmatize and shame fat people and portray thin bodies as more desirable, healthy and attractive. A content analysis of the representation of “obesity” on YouTube (Yoo and Kim 2012) found that highly negative representations of fat people were common, as were those that attributed personal responsibility for body weight (such as showing fat people eating unhealthy food) and made fun of fat people. Another study of YouTube videos using the search term “fat” (Hussin et al. 2011) revealed that many highly-viewed videos included content that devalued fat people. Men were targeted for fat stigmatization twice as often as women, and white people were the targets far more frequently than other ethnic or racial groups. The antagonists engaging in active shaming or vilification of fat people were also overwhelmingly white men.

My own search for the term “fat people” on YouTube in September 2016 returned many top-ranked videos in which fat people are held up to ridicule and scorn. These bore such titles as “Fat People Fails,” featuring fat people falling over, breaking furniture or otherwise publicly humiliating themselves as well as “The Top Fattest People in the World,” and “Fat People Cringe,” all featuring fat bodies in the style of the freak show. These videos all have millions of views. A Google search for “fat memes” similarly found memes that not only stigmatize fat bodies but are blatantly abusive and often cruel. Just some examples I came across include unflattering images of fat people with texts such as “I’m fat because obesity runs in my family. No-one runs in your family,” “I’m lazy because I’m fat and I’m fat because I’m lazy,” and “Sometimes when I’m sad I like to cut myself … another slice of cheesecake.” When I looked for “fat GIFs” on the GIFY platform, here again were many negative portrayals of fat people, including cartoon characters like Homer Simpson as well as real people, again engaging in humiliating bodily performances. Many of these GIFs showed people jiggling their abdomens or dancing to demonstrate the magnitude of their flesh, belly flopping into swimming pools, eating greedily, smeared with food and so on. Here again, fat white men predominated as targets of ridicule.

Apps are another dominant media form that often focuses on the monitoring, representation and even gamification of human embodiment. As I have argued elsewhere, the ways in which game apps portray social groups can often reproduce and exacerbate negative or misleading stereotypes, including racism, sexism, healthism and norms of feminine embodiment privileging highly-groomed, youthful, physically fit and slim bodies (Lupton 2015, Lupton and Thomas 2015). When I searched the App Annie platform using the term “fat,” a plethora of apps portraying fat bodies in negative ways were identified. These included several game apps that represented fat people as ugly, greedy, lazy and gormless figures of fun who need encouragement to engage in weight-loss activities. Many other apps involve users (who are assumed not to be fat) manipulating images of themselves or others so that they look fat. These include “FatGoo”, marketed by its developers in the following terms: “Gaining weight is now fun! FatGoo is the ultimate app for creating hilarious fat photos of your friends and family.” Others of this ilk include “Fatty – Make Funny Fat Face Pictures,” “Fat You!,” “FatBooth” and “Fatify – Get Fat.” Another fat app genre is that which uses abusive terms to shame people into controlling their diet and lose weight. One example is “CARROT Hunger – Talking Calorie Counter.” It is marketed by its developer as a “judgemental calorie counter” which will “punish you for overindulging.” The app can be used to scan foods for their calorie content. If it judges food as too high in calories, users are abused with insulting epithets such as “flabby meatbags” and even tweets shaming messages about them to their Twitter followers. While such apps may be considered by some as harmless fun, they play a serious ideological role in stigmatizing and rendering abject fatness and fat people.

… Thinspiration is a profoundly gendered discourse. Far more female than male bodies feature in digital images tagged with #thinspiration or #thinspo. I noted earlier that white men tend to be targeted for ridicule in memes and GIFs. Interestingly, my search for “skinny” or “thin” memes and GIFs also hold up white male bodies to derision, this time drawing attention to thin men as lacking appropriate muscular strength. Many memes show half-naked thin men in body-building poses, seeking to highlight their lack of size. When skinny women are featured in memes and GIFS, it is usually in relation to women who falsely claim or complain about being fat or else are sexualized images of young women in swimwear displaying their lean bodies (often tagged in GIFs with #hot #beauty, #perfect and #sexy as well as #thin, #thispo or #skinny). Thin women, these memes suggest, are to be envied because they conform to conventions of female attractiveness. In contrast, thin men are deficient because they fail to achieve ideals of masculine strength and size. The fitspiration or fitspo terms are more recent, but they also take up and reproduce many of the ideals of thinspiration, and similarly have a strong focus on physical appearance and conventional sexual attractiveness. The bodies that are championed in fitspiration are physically toned, active, strong and fit as well as slim (but not emaciated), and are similarly eroticized, with both female and male bodies featuring (Boepple et al. 2016, Boepple and Thompson 2016, Tiggemann and Zaccardo 2016).

References

Boepple, L., Ata, R.N., Rum, R. and Thompson, J.K. (2016) Strong is the new skinny: a content analysis of fitspiration websites. Body Image, 17 132-135.

Boepple, L. and Thompson, J.K. (2016) A content analytic comparison of fitspiration and thinspiration websites. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49 (1), 98-101.

Hussin, M., Frazier, S. and Thompson, J.K. (2011) Fat stigmatization on YouTube: a content analysis. Body Image, 8 (1), 90-92.

Lupton, D. (2015) Digital Sociology. London: Routledge.

Lupton, D. and Thomas, G.M. (2015) Playing pregnancy: the ludification and gamification of expectant motherhood in smartphone apps. M/C Journal (5). Accessed 22 October 2015. Available from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/1012.

Tiggemann, M. and Zaccardo, M. (2016) ‘Strong is the new skinny’: a content analysis of #fitspiration images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology, online ahead of print.

Yoo, J.H. and Kim, J. (2012) Obesity in the new media: a content analysis of obesity videos on YouTube. Health Communication, 27 (1), 86-97.

 

 

Lively devices, lively data and lively leisure studies

This is a foreword I wrote for a Leisure Studies special issue on digital leisure cultures (the link to the journal version is here).

In the countries of the Global North, each person, to a greater or lesser degree, has become configured as a data subject. When we use search engines, smartphones and other digital devices, apps and social media platforms, and when we move around in spaces carrying devices the record our geolocation or where there are embedded sensors or cameras recording our movements, we are datafied: rendered into assemblages of digital data. These personal digital data assemblages are only ever partial portraits of us and are constantly changing: but they are beginning to have significant impacts on the ways in which people understand themselves and others and on their life opportunities and chances. Leisure cultures and practices are imbricated within digital and data practices and assemblages. Indeed, digital technologies are beginning to transform many areas of life into leisure pursuits in unprecedented ways, expanding the purview of leisure studies.

These processes of datafication can begin even before birth and continue after death. Proud expectant parents commonly announce pregnancies on social media, uploading ultrasound images of their foetuses and sometimes even creating accounts in the name of the unborn so that they can ostensibly communicate from within the womb. Images from the birth of the child may also become publicly disseminated: as in the genre of the childbirth video on YouTube. This is followed by the opportunity for parents to record and broadcast many images of their babies’ and children’s lives. At the other end of life, many images of the dying and dead bodies can now be found on the internet. People with terminal illnesses write blogs, use Facebook status updates or tweet about their experiences and post images of themselves as their bodies deteriorate. Memorial websites or dedicated pages on social media sites are used after people’s death to commemorate them. Beyond these types of datafication, the data generated from other interactions online and by digital sensors in devices and physical environments constantly work to generate streams of digital data about people. In some cases, people may choose to generate these data; in most other cases, they are collected and used by others, often without people’s knowledge or consent. These data have become highly valuable as elements of the global knowledge economy, whether aggregated and used as big data sets or used to reveal insights into individuals’ habits, behaviours and preferences.

One of my current research interests is exploring the ways in which digital technologies work to generate personal information about people and how individuals themselves and a range of other actors and agencies use these data. I have developed the concept of ‘lively data’, which is an attempt to incorporate the various elements of how we are living with and by our data. Lively data are generated by lively devices: those smartphones, tablet computers, wearable devices and embedded sensors that we live with and alongside, our companions throughout our waking days. Lively data about humans are vital in four main respects: 1) they are about human life itself; 2) they have their own social lives as they circulate and combine and recombine in the digital data economy; 3) they are beginning to affect people’s lives, limiting or promoting life chances and opportunities (for example, whether people are offered employment or credit); and 4) they contribute to livelihoods (as part of their economic and managerial value).

These elements of datafication and lively data have major implications for leisure cultures. Research into people’s use of digital technologies for recreation, including the articles collected here and others previously published in this journal, draws attention to the pleasures, excitements and playful dimensions of digital encounters. These are important aspects to consider, particularly when much research into digital society focuses on the limitations or dangers of digital technology use such as the possibilities of various types of ‘addiction’ to their use or the potential for oppressive surveillance or exploitation of users that these technologies present. What is often lost in such discussions is an acknowledgement of the value that digital technologies can offer ordinary users (and not just the internet empires that profit from them). Perspectives that can balance awareness of both the benefits and possible drawbacks of digital technologies provide a richer analysis of their affordances and social impact. When people are using digital technologies for leisure purposes, they are largely doing so voluntarily: because they have identified a personal use for the technologies that will provide enjoyment, relaxation or some other form of escape from the workaday world. What is particularly intriguing, at least from my perspective in my interest in lively data, is how the data streams from digitised leisure pursuits are becoming increasingly entangled with other areas of life and concepts of selfhood. Gamification and ludification strategies, in which elements of play are introduced into domains such as the workplace, healthcare, intimate relationships and educational institutions, are central to this expansion.

Thus, for example, we now see concepts of the ‘healthy, productive worker’, in which employers seek to encourage their workers to engage in fitness pursuits to develop highly-achieving and healthy employees who can avoid taking time out because of illness and operate at maximum efficiency in the workplace. Fitness tracker companies offer employers discounted wearable devices for their employees so that corporate ‘wellness’ programs can be put in place in which fitness data sharing and competition are encouraged among employees. Dating apps like Tinder encourage users to think of the search for partners as a game and the attractive presentation of the self as a key element in ‘winning’ the interest of many potential dates. The #fitspo and #fitspiration hashtags used in Instagram and other social media platforms draw attention to female and male bodies that are slim, physically fit and well-groomed, performing dominant notions of sexual attractiveness. Pregnancy has become ludified with a range of digital technologies. Using their smartphones and dedicated apps, pregnant women can take ‘belfies’, or belly selfies, and generate time-lapse videos for their own and others’ entertainment (including uploading the videos on social media sites). 3D-printing companies offer parents the opportunity to generate replicas of their foetuses from 3D ultrasounds, for use as display objects on mantelpieces or work desks. Little girls are offered apps which encourage then to perform makeovers on pregnant women or help them deliver their babies via caesarean section. In the education sector, digitised gamification blurs leisure, learning and physical fitness. Schools are beginning to distribute heart rate monitors, coaching apps and other self-tracking devices to children during sporting activities and physical education classes, promoting a culture of self-surveillance via digital data at the same time as teachers’ monitoring of their students’ bodies is intensified. Online education platforms for children like Mathletics encourage users to complete tasks to win medals and work their way up the leaderboard, competing against other users around the world.

In these domains and many others, the intersections of work, play, health, fitness, education, parenthood, intimacy, productivity, achievement and concepts of embodiment, selfhood and social relations are blurred, complicated and far-reaching. These practices raise many questions for researchers interested in digitised leisure cultures across the age span. What are the affordances of the devices, software and platforms that people use for leisure? How do these technologies promote and limit leisure activities? How are people’s data used by other actors and agencies and in what ways do these third parties profit from them? What do people know about how their personal details are generated, stored and used by other actors and agencies? How do they engage with their own data or those about others in their lives? What benefits, pleasures and opportunities do such activities offer, and what are their drawbacks, risks and harms? How are the carers and teachers of children and young people encouraging or enjoining them to use these technologies and to what extent are they are aware of the possible harms as well as benefits? How are data privacy and security issues recognised and managed, on the part both of those who take up these pursuits voluntarily and those who encourage or impose them on others? When does digitised leisure begin to feel more like work and vice versa: and what are the implications of this?

These questions return to the issue of lively data, and how these data are generated and managed, the impact they have on people’s lives and concepts of selfhood and embodiment. As I noted earlier, digital technologies contribute to new ways of reconceptualising areas of life as games or as leisure pursuits that previously were not thought of or treated in those terms. In the context of this move towards rendering practices and phenomena as recreational and the rapidly-changing sociomaterial environment, all social researchers interested in digital society need to be lively in response to lively devices and lively data. As the editors of this special issue contend, researching digital leisure cultures demands a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective. Several exciting new interdisciplinary areas have emerged in response to the increasingly digitised world: among them internet studies, platform studies, software studies, critical algorithm studies and critical data studies. The ways in which leisure studies can engage with these, as well the work carried out in sub-disciplines such as digital sociology, digital humanities and digital anthropology, have yet to be fully realised. In return, the key focus areas of leisure studies, both conceptually and empirically – aspects of pleasure, performance, politics and power relations, embodiment, selfhood, social relations and the intersections between leisure and work – offer much to these other areas of enquiry.

The articles published in this special issue go some way to addressing these issues, particularly in relation to young people. The contributors demonstrate how people may accept and take up the dominant assumptions and concepts about idealised selves and bodies expressed in digital technologies but also how users may resist these assumptions or seek to re-invent them. As such, this special issue represents a major step forward in promoting a focus on the digital in leisure studies, working towards generating a lively leisure studies that can make sense of the constantly changing worlds of lively devices and lively data.