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Researchproject „Taxonomien des Selbst. Zur Genese und Verbreitung kalkulativer Praktiken der Selbstinspektion“

Funded by the DFG (German Research Foundation) | Project starts September 2015

From it’s very beginning modern capitalism has been constitutively linked to the field of calculation (Sombart 1987 [1916]; Weber 1920). Sociology has studied management tools such like measurables and benchmarking as paradigmatic examples of calculation that proliferated in the very heart of the economy of modern societies from the 19th century to the present. Since the 1990s new forms of government sustained by calculative tools – New Public Management, Auditing and international educational comparisons such like PISA being prominent examples – have gradually expanded into not yet economised fields such as education and health. In contrast to the first two stages, not only markets, organizations, and systemic processes are the object of calculative assessments. Today, subjects themselves begin to develop new practices of a quantified self-observation: from the measurement of sleeping behaviour, physical and sexual activity, the evaluation of changing moods and labour productivity up to the sharing of these data on the Internet, a wide range of calculative self-practices is emerging. Some of the most advanced practices of self-calculation can be found within a global network of self-trackers, self-quantifiers, entrepreneurs, developers and users of mobile and internet-based technologies of self-inspection, which has been labeled ‘The Quantified Self’ (http://quantifiedself.com/about/). It consists of individuals, collective meetings, web-platforms for comparing data and developing metrics, and start-up companies. The self-given motto is „self knowledge through numbers“. By quantifying their everyday self-observations the individual users are striving for new insights regarding their bodily, mental, psychological or social status. This includes health data, emotional ups and downs, individual performance indicators, digestive and sexual habits as well as everyday patterns of action and conduct. Self-inspection relies on technical artifacts such like activity wristbands, body sensors, smartphones and internet-based diagnosis-algorithms. The project will analyse practices of self-assessment and self-optimization that have previously been confined to social circles of ‘self-trackers’ and ‘self-quantifiers’ and that are now on the move to be socially generalized. It explores forms of self-inspection on the basis of the genesis of relevant evaluation systems (taxonomies) and everyday self-tracking practices, thereby contributing to the emerging field of valuation studies (Lamont 2012). At the same time, individual self-tracking – understood as a mundane phenomenon of culture and practice – is related to unfettered performance requirements in modern work as well as to emerging mass markets for self-tracking products. Within the project (funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and beginning June 2015) we will concentrate on two general problems: First, by focussing on the networked and calculated self we will analyse the cultural significance of calculation beyond organizations and markets. In doing so, the project fills a gap in sociological diagnoses of the present that lack reference to crucial processes of calculation in modern society. Second, the project will shed light on the contradictions and ambivalences of the recent advance of quantification: on the one hand, self-inspection might imply options for self-knowledge and emancipation and therefore could be considered as a form of enabling accounting. On the other hand, it threatens to subject every aspect of individual life by extending instrumental rationality to hitherto incalculable entities: the living body, the self, it’s emotions and desires.


Lamont, Michele (2012): Toward a comparative Sociology of Valuation and Evaluation, in: Annual Review of Sociology 38, pp. 201-221

Jessica Gackowska | 10.06.2015
FernUni-Logo FernUniversität in Hagen, Institut für Soziologie, 58084 Hagen