Quantified Self as Personal (Citizen) Science

This post is part of Bill of Health’s symposium on Critical Studies Citizen Science in Biomedical Research. Here, drawing upon interviews with self-trackers, Nils Heyen analyzes the different types of activities that self-trackers engage in and reflects on what kind of knowledge they produce. Background on the symposium is here. You can call up all of the symposium contributions published by clicking here.

By Nils B. Heyen

Quantified Self (QS) is the name of a growing international movement of people united by mainly one thing: an interest in collecting data about their own bodies and lives in order to obtain insights into their everyday health or performance. “Self knowledge through numbers” is the movement’s slogan, and indeed QS can be seen as an emerging field of knowledge production. Less obvious is, however, what type of knowledge is actually being produced here, how this knowledge production is to be characterized and how it relates to both science and citizen science. Based on interviews with self-trackers and participant observations of QS meetups and conferences in the context of an explorative empirical study, my post briefly deals with these questions (see this book chapter for more extensive considerations). Accordingly, my intention here is not to give a comprehensive classification or interpretation of the QS movement as a cultural phenomenon, but simply to shed some light on the aspect of knowledge production and on the relationship of self-tracking and citizen science.

Inspired by Haklay’s typology of citizen science projects (differentiating four levels of participation and engagement of citizens: crowdsourcing, distributed intelligence, participatory science, extreme citizen science) I developed a typology of self-tracking activities that differentiates four levels of engagement in knowledge production (see my book chapter): sole tracking without concrete goals, monitoring and optimization, research, research and development. Relating both typologies with each other reveals that self-tracking (so far) is basically connected with citizen science in two different ways: one are the so-called crowdsourced health research studies (see this article for details) initiated and conducted via health social networks like PatientsLikeMe or CureTogether where the participating self-trackers primarily have the function of test persons and are not much engaged in the knowledge production; the other are the self-tracker’s personal research studies and activities that take on the form of small research projects and might be seen as a somewhat new or special form of what Haklay calls extreme citizen science. Here, the primary goal of self-tracking is knowledge production from which possibly conclusions for daily life can be drawn (a rich source for examples is the QS website). Based on my empirical analysis I argue that these personal research studies can be counted as personal science insofar as they attempt to produce verified knowledge using scientific methods and according to scientific criteria, although their object is the researcher her/himself and their goal is practical knowledge for the person’s self-use. As one self-tracker put it in one of my interviews: “I‘m not a scientist in the literal sense, I‘m just my own scientist.”

The knowledge produced by personal science can be termed self-knowledge since it is characterized by three aspects: it is self-related (i.e. related to one’s own body, health or life), it is practical (i.e. relevant to one’s individual everyday practice), and it is implicitly claimed to be verified. Accordingly, the self-tracker as “personal scientist” gains a form of expertise that can be called self-expertise. In contrast to knowledge gained by pure experience self-expertise or self-knowledge is produced in a methodically controlled manner. One implication of this self-expertization seems to be that there is (so far) hardly any knowledge accumulation within the QS community, not to mention a collective knowledge production known from professional science or user-led content creation such as Wikipedia. However, even individual self-knowledge could possibly serve as stimulation for professional research (e.g., in terms of hypothesis generation; see this piece of work of Seth Roberts who was a professional scientist though). Of course, self-expertization and personal science might also have beneficial effects on one’s individual health. As another self-tracker pointed out: “The greatest benefit is that you know for yourself what is good for you and what is not good for you“. (For a list of potentials and risks as well as options for action with regard to QS and self-tracking see this Policy Paper addressing decision makers in politics, science, and medicine in Germany). From a sociological point of view, the prevalent twofold reference of personal science to science and healthcare means a twofold participation of citizens in two societal subsystems and thus a twofold responsibilization: citizens take responsibility for both knowledge production (self-research) and health (self-care).

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