The Body is Not a Neutral Design Space: How Designers Can Use Feminist and Phenomenological Theory When Defining the “Self” in Self-tracking

Sarah Homewood

Research output: Book / Anthology / Report / Ph.D. thesisPh.D. thesis


Self-tracking technologies that attend to physiological processes artificially turn bodies inside out. Feminist theorists and phenomenologists show that the body is not an a-historical, precultural or neutral object to be discovered through biological science. These theories reject Cartesian dualism, where the self is split into the cognitive mind and the mechanical body. They warn that this attitude leads to the erasure and oppression of bodies that do not fit the white, male, able-bodied norm that is held preferable in Western society. It is therefore relevant to consider the particular ways in which we understand and define the body within the design self-tracking technologies. This dissertation shows how current self-tracking technologies can be seen to treat the body as an object of science; to be measured and diagnosed through quantitative and normative practises. This approach to the body risks re-enforcing reductive and essentializing perspectives through treating the body solely as an object.

In an attempt to imagine alternatives to Cartesian dualist designs of self-tracking technologies, feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz’s theory of ‘embodied subjectivity’ is adopted and augmented with phenomenological theories on how the inside of the body is experienced. Grosz’s theory holds that the body as object and the body as subject are entangled in a mobius-strip-like relationship. This approach seems relevant where the group of users or the design case at hand is a particular facet of the body or anatomy; a particular chronic disease or one aspect of anatomy or morphology. This approach highlights how the body is not a neutral design space and supports designers in making choices about the body politics they want their devices to enact. The approach of designing for embodied subjectivity is explored and developed through the design of two selftracking devices; Ambient Cycle, a menstrual cycle tracking device that visualises data through ambient colour changes in the home environment, and Ovum; a ceramic ovulation tracking device that projects a magnified silhouette of the user’s saliva sample out into the room, when the user is fertile, salt crystals appear in this projection.

Long-term deployments of Ambient Cycle and Ovum showed how the approach of designing for embodied subjectivity supported a less normative notion of the body by facilitating the tracking of a wide range of bodily experiences; facilitated conversations and reflections on body politics in society; and produced novel, positive, forms of interactions with the insides of bodies, rather than interactions that reenforced that the biological body was an aspect to be negated and controlled through self-tracking. In presenting the particular ways in which Ambient Cycle and Ovum failed to live up to participant’s expectations of self-tracking devices, this research highlights how Cartesian dualist definitions of the body is still present and preferred in self-tracking practices, even when irregularity, uncertainty and inaccuracy is an inherent aspect of the body itself. Other contributions include accounts of the implications of designing for embodied subjectivity on the experience of the designer and the removal of technologies as a research method that produces knowledge through disturbing user’s habitual relationships with their devices.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherIT-Universitetet i København
Number of pages256
ISBN (Print)978-87-7949-034-5
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


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