Health sociology in the 21st century: Innovative approaches

Michelle Black, Australian Catholic University, Ally Gibson, University of New South Wales & Sophie Lewis, University of New South Wales:

Hosted by the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, TASA’s Health Sociology Thematic Group held a one-day symposium entitled Health sociology in the 21st century: Innovative approaches on 2 December 2016. The theme of innovative approaches and methods in health sociology acknowledged the growing interest in the use of new and emerging digital technologies, social media and audio-visual technologies for exploring the social contexts of health-related behaviours. The event featured keynote presentations from Professor Deborah Lupton and Associate Professor Fran Collyer followed by a panel discussion with Professor Karen Willis, Dr Peta Cook, Professor Alan Petersen and Associate Professor Mark Davis. The event was well attended with over 50 registrants from diverse backgrounds, including contingent and sessional academics, health sociologists working outside the academy and early career researchers. TASA thematic group funding allowed conveners to subsidise registration for Research Higher Degree students. This enabled many of them to attend the event and to hear from high profile researchers of international renown.

Professor Deborah Lupton’s keynote address focused on the ways in which digital technology intersects with people’s experiences of health and illness and the practices of medicine, ranging from people’s use of wearable technology and self-tracking devices to virtual medical training. She argued for the need to look at digital media as sociocultural artefacts and critically examine the social, cultural, political and ethical implications of their use, including potential unintended consequences such as increasing social disadvantage, inequality and discrimination. Following the presentation, Prof Lupton facilitated a workshop whereby participants were asked to design an ideal personal data machine to collect data on oneself, and a personal data machine to collect data on someone else. The activity required us to think creatively and resulted in varied and innovative proposals.

For her keynote presentation, A/Prof Collyer posed the question: what do we mean when we talk about innovation in health research? She presented a systematic review of published sociological work applying methodological innovation or using innovative methods. A/Prof Collyer’s presentation invited debate as to why, in spite of low cost, ease of use, and our increasing use of online spaces, there is such little uptake of online methods and approaches. The audience was invited to reflect on the merit of using ‘innovative’ methods in place of the ‘old’ qualitative techniques favoured by health sociology researchers.

A highlight of the day was a very popular networking lunch, providing a unique opportunity for new and emerging health sociologists to engage with more established researchers through a speed dating activity facilitated by Associate Professor Fran Collyer. This provided for some lively conversations and collaboration between students, early, mid and established career researchers about their shared research interests and ideas.

In the afternoon panel discussion, the four high profile researchers showcased their diverse program of work and provided insights into their use of innovative approaches in health sociology. In a very engaging presentation, Prof Willis emphasised the importance of thinking about which methods are most appropriate to use to guide our research. Dr Cook shared insights from using participant photographs in a public exhibition to engage community members in discussions about their thoughts on growing older. Prof Petersen, noting the increasing emphasis by funding bodies on innovation, drew attention to the poor definition of the concept of ‘innovation’, in that it is not well related to the context or translation of research. Prof Petersen also levelled criticism at methodologies that have become fetishised within the discipline – namely the overuse of grounded theory. Drawing on the example of narratives of ‘super bugs’ and antimicrobial resistance, A/Prof Mark Davis ended with a discussion of how the method can be used to gauge public sense-making and response to issues represented as ‘health risks’.

In conclusion, the event opened our minds to the possibilities for using digital technologies, social media, online portals, visual methods and big data in health sociology research. The key message is that the ‘old’ research methods are still useful, but can be synergised with new methods, such as social media data, cultural probes, and digital ethnography. We look forward to seeing these ideas being incorporated into future research. The Health Thematic Group conveners would like to acknowledge the support of TASA for making the event possible by a 2016 TASA Thematic Group Grant.



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