Self-tracking and data sensibilities

I recently blogged about the idea of the ‘qualified self’ and why I’m drawn to this phrase. As sometimes happens, I wasn’t being enormously serious when I started writing the post but had argued myself into a new position by the end of it. I like the ‘qualified self’ because it draws attention to the aspects of self-tracking, broadly construed, which can tend to be obscured if we focus in an overly narrow way on the Quantified Self. I use capitals here in allusion to a distinction offered by Whitney Erin Boesel between the Quantified Self and quantified self: as an organised movement of sorts, the QS encompasses a very particular relationship between personal and social reflexivity: ““QSers” don’t just self-track; they also interrogate the experiences, methods, and meanings of their self-tracking practices, and of self-tracking practices generally” as Boesel puts it.

However I think the ‘big tent’ strategy she discusses as characterising the movement, if indeed we can call it that, can obscure how specific these reflexive practices are because it’s easy to mistake inclusivity for commonality. To be clear I really don’t mean this as a criticism of the Quantified Self. I think this is a very valuable thing for them to have done on a number of levels. I say this as someone who has thought about ‘big tent policies’ a lot in terms of another social movement of sorts that can be found in asexuality activism. But as with the asexual community, ‘big tents’ can obscure the differences of those within the tent. The notion of the Qualified Self appeals to me as a way of articulating certain motivations for self-tracking, techniques and attendant technologies which I worry are being subsumed under the rhetoric of the QS. Perhaps I’m even talking about an entirely different sensibility with which people engage in self-tracking? This interesting post by Deborah Lupton observes the trends in google search terms relating to these practices:

As part of my research for the book I made a Google Trends graph comparing the major terms that are used to denote the practices of voluntarily monitoring aspects of the self: self-tracking, the quantified self, life logging and personal analytics. As the resultant graph demonstrates, it was not until mid-2007 that any of these terms began to show up in Google searches. Self-tracking led the way, followed by life logging, then personal analytics. The quantified self is the newest term. It began to appear in searches in January 2010 and rose quickly in popularity, beginning to overtake self-tracking by April 2012 (although just recently self-tracking has caught up again). The quantified self, therefore, has become a well-used term, at least among people using Google Search. In another study of news coverage of the quantified self I found that the term has become increasingly used in these accounts as well.

But is it time to rethink or even relinquish the term ‘the quantified self’? For my book I prefer to use ‘self-tracking’ over the alternatives, as this term is broader and more inclusive of a range of practices (and I refer to ‘self-tracking cultures’ to denote the various social, cultural and political contexts in which self-tracking practices are carried out).

This doesn’t confirm my sense of ‘quantified self’ swallowing up the broader discursive field out of which it emerged by any means. But it is suggestive of a trend. While I agree with Deborah that “Self-tracking is not simply about quantified (or quantifiable) information”, I’m not sure it follows from this that we can detach self-tracking practices from the kinds of data that inform them in the way I perhaps wrongly read her as saying. I think epistemologies are encoded into practices and the appeal of those practices in turn must be understood in terms of personal biography. Certain types of people are led to practices under certain conditions and then contribute to the reproduction or transformation of those practices (and the broader conditions) in virtue of what they bring to them.

What intrigues me about the QS is how closely entwined the ethos and the epistemology seem to be. On a personal level, it just doesn’t make sense to me to think of my own life in terms of what I take to be the prevailing concepts within the Quantified Self. But I can easily see why it would for others and it’s these questions of biographical differentiation that interest me e.g. how does one come to be someone who participates in quantified self practices? How does one come to be someone who participates in QS events? How does one come to be someone who engages in the kinds of practices I was describing in terms of ‘qualitative self-tracking’?

This is why I think the distinction draw by Margaret Archer between different modes of reflexivity is so important to understanding this. My hunch is that the QS community is filled with autonomous reflexives. In a later post, I’ll map out my reasons for thinking this and explain the concepts I’m using properly. But my broader claim is that there’s often a contingent complementarity between particular styles of internal life and particular practices of self-tracking. I’d like to understand this at an empirical level much more than I do and I think doing so would help illuminate at a theoretical level a lot of issues about the relationship between personal reflexivity and technology which interest me.

Perhaps this is all a long winded way of saying that I think the kinds of information that a person comes to think of as salient to their selves is a very interesting issue. So I think numbers are important to people whose self-tracking practices revolve around quantifiable data and my inclination as a biographically orientated sociologist is to ask how did this come to be so? Addressing this question properly entails consideration of structure, agency, culture and the relationships between them. This is far too big a question to address in a blog post but I can see the outline of a potential paper beginning to take shape.

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