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What’s in a number? A multimethod study of self-quantification’s role in shaping selfhood

Smirnova, Svetlana (2020) What’s in a number? A multimethod study of self-quantification’s role in shaping selfhood. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004403


This dissertation explores self-tracking – a process of self-quantification for health and wellness via mobile applications and wearable devices – in relation to reflexivity and selfhood. The dissertation answers the following research question: how does self-tracking contribute to our sense of the self? The study argues that self-tracked data is becoming a new source for self-construction and ethical self-evaluation. The study draws on a multi-layered conceptual framework that incorporates cultural, reflexive, privacy, and ethics axes. The development of the tool was influenced by the works of Charles Taylor, Margaret Archer, William Sewell, and Julie Cohen, as well as critical scholarship on self-quantification. Methodologically, the study employs a longitudinal design that combines a set of two interviews and a four-week, solicited dairy. The research is set in the United Kingdom. A four-cluster sample consisting of casual trackers, semi-professional athletes, individuals living with chronic health conditions, and healthcare professionals was recruited for the study. In total, 50 participants took part in the study, resulting in a rich dataset of 45 diaries and 95 interviews. The research uncovered the centrality of moral metaphors and moral emotions (i.e. shame, pride, and guilt) in descriptions of the practice; tensions between symbolic representations and everyday practices; the multiplicity of higher-order reflections on the practice; and a sense of unease in relation to informational privacy. Those findings are significant because they call for scrutiny of the arbitrary benchmarks, inaccurate measurements, commercial interests, and obscure data flows that underlie a deeply meaningful practice. The dissertation makes two original contributions. Methodologically, the study proposes rigour-enhancing strategies for solicited diaries. Substantively, the study argues that self-quantification shapes selfhood in complex ways, rather than simply providing additional information to those who engage in the practice. The study also adds rare longitudinal insights to the field. The research is positioned in and contributes to the critical interdisciplinary space dedicated to examining the practice of self-tracking.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2020 Svetlana Smirnova
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Sets: Departments > Media and Communications
Supervisor: Couldry, Nick and Powell, Alison

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