Step-counting in the “health-society”: phenomenological reflections on walking in the era of the Fitbit
Step-counting turns walking into a health intervention. In the era of the Fitbit, physical activity tracking is commonplace, and a growing body of literature investigates the implications of digitally mediated human movement. This paper grows out of concern with the proliferation of tracking technologies; however, the focus here is not on the technology itself, but on the activity of step-counting that the technology has popularized. I look at step-counting to think about the ramifications of the promotion of physical activity in what Ilona Kickbusch (J Epidemiol Community Health 60(7):561, 2006) has called “the health society”. As a theoretical reflection, the paper contributes to discussions about the reach of health promotion discourses into daily life. Drawing on Foucauldian analyses of neoliberal approaches to health, I argue that the instrumental understandings of physical activity that surface in health promotion efforts around walking constrain meanings people can make of their bodies. I extend Foucauldian critique with materialist perspectives from the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Drew Leder. Adopting Leder’s notion of the “absent body”, I argue that in the health society, strategies like step-counting make life smaller and narrow our ability to imagine life differently, with all the political consequences that might entail.
KeywordsWalking Pedometers Healthism Self-tracking Phenomenology Merleau-Ponty
Many thanks to the anonymous reviewers, and to Sarah Barnes, Dia Da Costa, Samantha King, Eleanor MacDonald, and Eric Mykhalovskiy for useful feedback on earlier versions of this article.
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