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Digital Care with Susanna Trnka: New Research in ESTS

Aleka Gurel

10 January, 2017

In this series of Backchannels posts, we’ll be highlighting new research in the 4S journals, ST&HV and ESTS. Here, Backchannels interviews Susanna Trnka, author of the recent ESTSpaper, “Digital Care: Agency and Temporality in Young People’s Use of Health Apps.” She is associate professor of anthropology at The University of Auckland and as a social and medica​l anthropologist, her primary research areas are the body, citizenship, and subjectivity. Susanna’s work on multiple conceptualizationsandenactments of responsibility has also led her to compile an edited volume on this subject. Competing Responsibilities: The Politics and Ethics of Social Life, co-edited with Catherine Trundle, will be published by Duke University Press in 2017.

Backchannels: What brought you to this research topic?

ST: My previous research project compared how families in New Zealand and the Czech Republic cope with asthma. In talking to parents, kids, and young adults with asthma it became clear that responsibility for care is rarely straightforward but rather often highly negotiated, both within the family and externally (in terms of relationships with health professionals, or the state, for example). This got me interested in thinking about the different resources young adults draw upon in coping with their health and wellbeing, and how ideas about responsibility for oneself and for others change as one grows into adulthood. That's a classic anthropological concern. But there is a different twist to it when we consider contexts in which the markers of adulthood are less certain or obvious - as they can often be online, where there are different dynamics as to what is and isn't observable about a person. So then the question for me became, how are self-responsibility/self-care and inter-personal responsibility and care constituted when young people traverse multiple online and offline contexts? Add to that technologies that are now easily portable and thus seemingly ceaselessly available, and the questions get even more intriguing!

Backchannels: What challenges did you overcome to complete the study?

ST: The study isn't by any means complete. I feel like it has just started, and at the moment the biggest challenge that my research assistants and I are facing is recruiting young people ages 14-16 to talk to us. Older age groups are a lot easier to access but we really want to hear from younger adults, mosPhoto of iphone by Gonzalo Baeza, via twittert of whom are still living at home with their parents or guardians, about the specific issues they face and the roles that apps play in how they understand and respond to their health and wellbeing.

Backchannels: What lesson would you like people to take away from the paper you’ve just published?

ST: The key point is that while public health research seems to suggest that with the right tools young adults can  "take responsibility" for their own health, the dynamics are much more complicated than that. Young people both want to have agency over their health and healthcare, and want to feel like there are others watching out for them. They are often both interested in their own wellbeing and, in many cases, engaged in providing care for others. Some are also really ambivalent about what happens when they set up a tool (i.e., an app) in order to have more control over their health, but then feel like the process runs away from them and what they've created for themselves seems to have more power over their behaviour than they do. What really came out in our first round of interviews is the inter-social nature of health activities, and how power and agency are recalibrated in light of both one's relationships to others and their responses to the technological tools at hand.

Backchannels: What is next on your research agenda?

ST: Step one will be more interviews, with young people and with medical professionals who work with them, about their use of apps for health and wellbeing. Also, following up on the surprising number of young adults who told us they use apps to improve their mental wellbeing, I've teamed up with a clinical psychologist, Dr. Kerry Gibson, in an effort to take a closer look at young people's approaches to optimizing their moods through their use of apps and other technological devices, as I think there is different kind of understanding of what is meant by "mental wellbeing" and the kinds of modes of control and enhancement we can engage in, that is at play here, but I haven't quite got my finger on it yet.

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.


interview, sts, ests