Anthropology has long studied the constitutive role of objects in the making of our social worlds and our material cultures. Invested in meaning, they take part in developing our knowledge about the world as about ourselves. However, for several decades, our environments have been organized in a meaningful way, with objects that take on an unprecedented dimension by the amplitude of their deployment in our daily activities: they are “connected.”
This characteristic echoes the place occupied by digital technology in our so-called hyperconnected societies. Our life contexts are renewed, informed by information and communication technologies (ICT), social networks, applications, and of course, the objects that support and materialize these connected dimensions of our existence and our social relations so that our environments today are partly constructed by these objects which mediate them and, in the same movement, frame and shape our perceptions of what surrounds us.
Therefore, we can understand the interest shown in it by the social sciences by endeavoring to account for their part in the transformations of our ways of inhabiting this new world, fully tended towards “digital culture.” Health is no exception to this dynamic, inviting us to question the potential associated changes.
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Connected objects and health
Today, the health sector is crossed by digital technology in many forms, from the digital management of patient files to remote consultation, including the use of applications and connected objects. We also speak of “e-health” (or digital health), a portmanteau to signify this reality, which encompasses a heterogeneity of situations, actors, and practices while escaping a true form of centralizing organization.
One of the characteristics of this digital health is producing a multitude of data that circulate and be exchanged, transforming into information in the service of prevention or care activities. These data are based in particular on applications and objects: telephones, watches, individual measuring devices such as glucometers, blood pressure monitors. Connected and mobile objects whose commonly accepted idea is that they offer new possibilities – but the data are lacking to fully appreciate their effectiveness – in terms of prevention, monitoring of physical variables, physiological dysfunctions, and management of health problems for both caregivers and people with illnesses, especially chronic ones.
Because they take part in the production and circulation of information around biological and behavioral variables, these objects are thus credited with benefits such as better therapeutic compliance or increased autonomy of patients in the face of their health problems. . Behind their conception, then their putting into circulation, there is the idea of allowing everyone to behave more responsibly, as an actor of their health and well-being – even as an “expert patient” under the effect. Almost instantaneous reactions to quantifications mediated by these objects are supposed to objectify risks. For example, offer an inhaler which, by geolocation of drug intakes crossed with meteorological or pollution data,
Anthropological Research is ongoing to analyze these objects’ role in bodily health and experiences that are emerging with the XXI century. For example, in the management of chronic attacks linked to asthma, by giving an account of how “habits” are formed, in which new uses are ritualized while questioning, in the same movement, these eminently cultural expectations and social norms that normalize the need for daily self-control based on technical and quantified data.
What objects “do” with and to people
Objects are never just mattered in our hands. Carriers of meanings, desires, expectations, functions by the people who make them and then by those who use them, they cover various dimensions (heritage, identity, affective, mediating, etc.) during their “social life.”
From fetishes to cultural goods, decorative elements to utensils, objects allow complex manipulations and, in so doing, occupy distinct statuses, successively or simultaneously about the trajectories they follow, the interactions, and the meanings they mediate. In this sense, they are active elements in the relationships between individuals and their environment.
Anthropology and sociology, in particular techniques, have long emphasized the value of thinking about objects not only from their creation but also through the prism of what they “do” with people and with people. . Because the object is not inert in action: it operates on the relation and the interactions, which leads the philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour to speak of an epistemological rupture between an intersubjective approach and an intersubjective approach of social worlds.
Connected health objects are no exception to these dynamics. If each of us is not just a user of objects with functions designed for us, then we must account for how these objects take part in our daily health experiences: to what extent can they make us different individuals?
Renewed relationships with the body? To health?
We lack qualitative research that differs from feedback and quantitative evaluation procedures for the uses of these connected health objects, to understand the processes by which they become constitutive of our knowledge (on the body, the risks, and diseases which weaken it), in particular through the intimate and empirical experiences that we have of these measured bodies, translated into figures and curves.
Despite ongoing interdisciplinary research programs, we also lack qualitative materials to grasp in all their complexity how the routine uses of these connected objects take part in more paradigmatic changes concerning our representations of our bodies in their interrelation with our behaviors and in fine, how these objects interfere in the care relationship with health professionals. Because used daily, they sometimes deliver information outside the timeframe of the interaction with the caregiver. In this sense, the object can strengthen individuals’ role in the management of their body objectified beyond – or even outside? – the doctor-patient relationship.
Note also that many objects and applications have no declared medical purpose. They are not among the medical devices for which the health authorities define “good practices” which guarantee their safety and quality by regulating their use. However, they can affect health, if only by the meanings attributed to them in the matter, which will induce these effects. How are these objects concretely brought into resonance with questions of prevention and exposure to risks? The answers to these questions will benefit from being based on multidisciplinary research in social sciences and public health.