Earlier this year I had a couple of chapters in different edited collections both published about the same time on quite different aspects of self tracking. In this post I will summarise and reflect on one and will write another post about the other soon.

I’ve been interested for little while in the ways in which self tracking of exercise is being used in workplaces as part of corporate wellness initiatives. In particular, I’ve been looking into how corporate wellness “vendors” sell their products to employers. I think this can tell quite a lot about what kinds of bodies, behaviours and relationships are valued in society today.

In the chapter I’ll be discussing in this post I used a form of discourse analysis taken mostly from the work of Norman Fairclough and combined this with a theoretical approach influenced by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello to critique promotional material produced by corporate wellness vendors; Global Corporate Challenge (GCC) and Virgin Pulse (who have since merged).

The wellness programs these companies offer tend to be ones where employees are provided with self tracking devices (or they can use their own Fitbits, phones, et cetera) and get into teams to compete against their colleagues to see you can clock up the most exercise over a defined period of time.The basic idea behind these initiatives is that they will help to make employees healthier, happier, more productive and generally better workers.

In the chapter I apply critical discourse analysis to explore how the adverts and promotional “white papers” produced by GCC and Virgin Pulse target managers through their language and position them as “active subjects” to act upon their employees. It is the managers who are positioned in the driving seat and have the potential, and responsibility, to make their workers more productive as well as healthier and happier.

This is partly down to constructing an imagined reader as a manager and addressing them personally as well as giving them a voice in the text through quotations from other mangers. Conversely, workers are generally not represented in an active way but seen as passive recipients of the good interventions of managers.

The main finding in the chapter is that the overriding “discourse” present in this text is that increasing, and controlling, social connections is good for health and productivity at work. In itself this is not a particularly new insight and at first glance sounds consistent with other claims which have been made about the importance of “social capital” for health but I suggest something different is happening here.

In these texts it is suggested that self tracking technologies and the monitoring, analysis and competitions which they enable are effective ways of stimulating connections which will be beneficial to health and business outcomes. From this perspective health and productivity start to be conflated.

For this reason I suggest that what is being promoted in these texts is “connexionism” a concept I take from Boltanski and Chiapello’s book The New spirit of Capitalism. They use this term to refer to one of the key characteristics of the contemporary ideology of capitalism, that the ideal worker is someone who is well connected and can manage flows of information and knows how and when to exploit relationships and act as a bridge between networks.

In the texts I analysed they draw on the work of Nicholas Christakis to inform their justification for the self tracking initiatives. In particular, he claims that healthy and unhealthy behaviours (and productive and unproductive ones) are passed around populations like a “contagion”. He imagines groups of people as a networks composed of “nodes” who are more or less influential depending on how that network is structured (for instance by a manager).

Self tracking devices which are able to communicate data on individuals and present them with nudges and notifications are suggested as a means of constructing networks and controlling them in such a fashion that is desirable. I suggest that these texts construct individuals as relatively passive “nodes” who automatically react and transmit behaviours. Managers, with an overview of the system, are presented as knowledgeable and active subjects. But crucially “the social” or the “the network” is seen as something which can, and should, be mobilised by good managers, to improve the health of individuals who are unwittingly contracting and spreading bad (and sometimes good) behaviours. In the process what is good for business and for health are mixed up.

If you would like to read more on this the chapter is published as part of the book Self-tracking: empirical and philosophical investigations edited by Btihaj Ajana which is a Palgrave Pivot pivot title so can be purchased as an e-book, physical book and as an individual chapter. Or you can get in touch with me.

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