Does self-tracking increase the healthicization of everyday life?

Some years ago I have suggested to think life-style centred health promotion as phenomenon that mirrors the regimen designed to manage chronic illness (matching the chronic patient with a chronic proto-patient), and therefore call it “chronic health”. Although I have tried to understand this a temporal delimitation of the Parsonsian sick role, I have not paid much attention to the temporal dimension of the practices involved – the regularities and rhythms these disciplines entail. This highly interesting reflection by Chris Till not only highlights such temporalities, but also shows up how with new technological developments in consumer electronics they are intensified and fine-tuned, truly chronifying the healthy body…

This Is Not a Sociology Blog

Self-tracking has been talked up a lot over the last few years as a potential component of e-health or m-health. It has been proposed as a tool of public health and particularly health promotion because of the ways in which it can blend in with the daily life of users. For instance, self-tracking can easily generate data on behaviour change for researchers without bothering users too much, provide automated “nudges” to users (“you’re near the park why not go for a run?”) and potentially form a feedback system to users who will respond to the “gamification” of their daily activities (by trying to beat their previous week’s step count perhaps).


The ability of self-tracking devices to blend into everyday life and make exercise easier and more fun has been one of the big drivers for optimism in their potential. While I can see that this could be a…

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Ziya Gökalp, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the two Emile Durkheims

All too often the political divides in Turkey are simplified into a crude division into a secularist/republican (Kemalist) camp and an Islamic/Islamist camp, with the only complication allowed for being the conflict around Kurdish minority rights. What has been long ignored was that both these camps share a set of outlooks that they inherited from the late Ottoman Empire and early Republican period and that they are close enough to lend plausibility to “Turkish Islamic synthesis” with which a group of right wing intellectuals sought to establish as a broad national compromise in the 1980s. What is also often ignored is that in both camps an increased exposure to globalised and cosmopolitan fields of practice has inspired the emergence of a more liberal outlook that found a room for manoeuvre in the interstices created by the deadlock between growing Islamist movements and Kemalist elites. The AKP had managed to secure electoral success not just by connecting to marginalised Islamic populations moving from central Anatolia to the big cities and by support from the new Islamic business elites – they also attracted to votes of liberal Muslims and anti-Kemalist secularists by unprecedentedly pro-European, pro-human rights and pro-Kurdish policies.

For some time now secular and religious liberals have been moving away from Erdoğan, citing an increasingly authoritarian style and morally prescriptive intrusions into personal lifestyles. Is he showing his true “Islamist” colours now? Partly – the intrusions around abortion rights and alcohol consumption certainly are religiously inspired. But the style and mis-understanding of “democracy” is that of his Kemalist predecessors. For post-Islamist Mustafa Akyol the problem is not that Erdoğan is “too Islamic” but that he is “too Turkish” (at 00:15 – comment starts around 00:13), referring to a certain paternalistic/collectivist and anti-liberal pattern that is enshrined in the legacy of Kemalist republican thought as formulated by Ziya Gökalp (and it may not be a total coincidence that it was a quote from a Ziya Gökalp poem that earned Erdoğan a spell in prison).  Erdoğan’s insistence that as elected leader he represents the people’s will and hence can ignore any protests very much is in the tradition of Kemalist principles devletçilik (statism) and halkçılık (populism). As Spencer (1958) analysed, these principles as developed by Gökalp have been inspired by a reading of Durkheim’s sociology – following a misunderstanding that remained common into the 1950s and 60s, namely that Durkheim proposed that in the absence of traditional religious bonds only a strong national identity as new conscience collective can safeguard the continuity of social life:

 ‘But it must be recalled that Durkheim gave complete priority to society and dismissed the worth of the individual. The Turks have retained this concept, and argued that collective action is not arbitrary and is not to be couched in Hegelian dialectic. Statism in Turkey is construed as the manifestation of the collective will.’ (Spencer 1958: 653)

That Durkheim was not only a methodological collectivist but also a political individualist has been too much to digest for most early and mid 20th century readers. But he certainly was, seeing the cult of human rights, a culture of individualistic humanitarianism, as residual religious glue that ideologically holds together a maximally diverse society. So both the masses commandeered by Erdoğan and the masses of protestors for Gezi could be said to be Durkheimians in a way. Which of the two Durkheimisms will prevail in Turkey remains to be seen – my money’s still on a cosmopolitan cult of the individual. One reason is that the powers of collectivist Durkheimism, both among the old Kemalist elites and in the new Islamic elites share Gökalp’s idea of economic/technological modernisation that is to leave the social/cultural core of Turkish or Muslim life unaffected:

‘… Westernization created serious difficulties for the Ottoman Turks, and solutions ranged from the Westernized constitutional guarantees of the Tanzimat era to the policies of resistance and isolation for Abdülhamit II. Ziya set himself the task of providing a sociological rationale for the acceptance of Western ideas by the Turks. The solution he proposed was both simple and naïve: given the organic unity and integrity of Turkish society and the spirit of  Turkish culture, the nation is in a position to accept Western civilization in full. At this point Ziya returned to an application of the distinction of Tönnies. Civilization is not culture, but a supercultural development. Nations can share in the same civilization, as he conceived it, but by doing so they may forfeit their cultural integrity. Hence the Turks must retain their culture, but at the same time take over the benefits of Western civilization (Duda 1948: 99). How this is to be done is not clear from Ziya’s writings.’ (Spencer 1958: 651)

This idea of technological Westernisation paired up with social conservatism has been tried and tested and failed in many places –  it has failed even where the social conservatism was pursued with much more rigour than in the Turkish case – as Elmusa (1997) shows for Saudi Arabia. The microelectronic revolution has sustained a leaderless resistance at Gezi that allowed the collective expression of people who, in the end, only shared the fervent commitment to each other’s individual freedom

 Everyone is enjoying the camaraderie and freedom. No one is being patronizing and everybody is wearing their colours of life free of restraint. While the Anticapitalist Muslims perform their prayers, atheists keep watch around them. The Kurds dance their halay, Alevis whirl in their ritual dance, semah, Turks chant military marches. Socialists, LGBTs, fans of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray teams roll up their sleeves together, have fun together and keep an eye on each other. Everyone’s freedom is guarded by everyone else.[1]

They are “Durkheimian” in that (like, by the way, old Marx) a) they are intuitively aware that all individuality is a social construct, is only possible as outcome of social interaction – they are collectivist in their methods and b) they are politically individualistic in that they not only care for their own rights of personal development and freedom of expression but that of everybody else as well.

Elmusa, Sharif S. (1997): ‘Faust Without the Devil? The Interplay of Technology and Culture in Saudi Arabia’, in: Middle East Journal, Vol.51, No.3, pp.345-57

Spencer, Robert F. (1958): ‘Culture Process and Intellectual Current: Durkheim and Atatürk’, in: American Anthropologist, New SeriesI, Vol.60, No.4, pp.640-57

[1] Burhan Sönmez: The Aesthetics of Resistance, translated by Duygu Tekgül, orig. in BirGün

Stonier’s “microelectronic revolution” – a forgotten concept?

I came across this more by accident (partly because I’m not greatly attracted to the author’s cosmic theories…), but Tom Stonier’s 1983 text on the “Microelectronic Revolution” not only predicts the crumbling away of the Soviet Empire when faced with the possibilities of new communication technologies, but also outlines the pattern that recently brought down a string of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. One would expect a revival – but so far Jaap van Till’s talk on the influence of social media on the progress and the obstruction of the revolutions in the Middle East is the only reference made to it I could find. What Stonier had to say nearly thirty years ago now sounds trivial (see the below quote), but given that this is decades before Twitter and Facebook… actually: it is before most people knew that there is such a thing as the internet, and given that it is written a good three years before Gorbachev ascended to power in the SU, this is quite amazing.

When it is no longer possible to control information flows from the centre,  it becomes almost impossible to  control public opinion.  The emergence of  a significant body of  public opinion opposing a regime on any specific issue, places an authoritarian regime in a predicament. Either it follows public opinion, or  it becomes repressive. In the first instance it cedes decision-making power, In the second, it alienates support.  (Stonier 1983: 145)

Not only that – while the Reagan administration was still sending the anti-Soviet Islamists in Afghanistan Stingers that they would later have to buy back dearly for fear of them being used in anti-American terrorist attacks, Stonier sees that for the next decades the major security threat will come from … Islamists. Now that may not such a great feat – but he also saw that in the end both nationalist and religious authoritarianism in the Middle East will encounter the same problems as the Soviet system before them. In my previous post I highlight the panicked reaction of religious authorities in Iran when confronted with oppositional music videos on Youtube… here’s waht Stonier had to say four years after the Islamic Revolution:

Some time early  in  the  next century even  the  Ayatollahs  will  be overtaken by the Communicative Era. The pace at which this will happen will depend on the policy stance the West adopts. This, then, becomes one of the major tasks for political scientists: to understand the impact of the new  microelectronic information technology on global society  and to develop a sound theory of political change on which political leaders can base their decisions. (Stonier 1983: 151)

Stonier, Tom (1983): ‘The Microelectronic Revolution, Soviet Political Structure, and the Future of East/West Relations’, in: The Political Quarterly, Vol.54, No.2, pp.137-51