COVID feelings and movement: Fear and lockdown in Sydney

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash

Clare Southerton

As Sydney spends its first week in lockdown, perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve been thinking a lot about movement. Not just about getting out of my apartment (though that would be lovely), but about the relationship between feelings and movement during Australia’s most recent coronavirus outbreak. 

In her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed considers the role of fear in the conservation of power, and argues that ‘emotions work to align bodily space with social space’ (p. 69). In this sense, emotions are structural rather than personal. Fear, she explains, ‘works to restrict some bodies through the movement or expansion of others’ (p. 69). 

Taking up idea to think about the pandemic in Australia, we can see the way fear has worked to reinforce existing social inequalities, reflected in whose movement is restricted and in what ways. Australian border control measures, which have cut millions of Australians off from family overseas and left thousands stranded overseas with no way to return home, reveal fear in action. Earlier this year, when asked about his continued refusal to open the borders, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison deflected by making reference to the 910 Australians who had died from COVID-19 — ‘every single one of those lives was a terrible tragedy’.  It’s very clear that stoking fear of death and risk of COVID here serves to reassure us that the harsh measures are unavoidable.

Despite a fear of COVID spread, this has not restricted the inflow of affluent people into Australia, with reports that the wealthy are routinely prioritised on limited flights or fly into Australia on private jets. News outlets have also reported on the number of international celebrities in Australia enjoying ‘relief’ from the pandemic.

Here in Sydney, at the NSW government press conference on Thursday, the Premier Gladys Berejiklian discouraged unnecessary movement by emphasising practices such as ordering groceries online and ordering takeaway food to be delivered, rather than collecting it yourself — all in order to restrict our movements. Similarly, as outbreaks dominate the headlines it’s common to see complaints on social media documenting public spaces that were ‘busy’ when we should be staying home or calling out people for failing to adhere to public health advice. 

A tweet from ABC Radio presenter Margaret Throsby

Comparing the sentiments in this tweet from ABC radio presenter Margaret Throsby with the language used to describe arrivals of wealthy celebrities on private jets (see this article for example), we can see a stark difference in emotional tone. Affluent overseas travellers entering Australia may be seen as queue-jumping, noted in the article as ‘given preferential entry’ but hardly seen as a threat to public safety, in the same way as people in busy areas in Sydney are framed above. Frustration, even anger may be directed at them, but rarely fear.

Now we might think that those who stay at home have their mobility restricted by fear. But it is not that simple. Who does not have the choice to reduce their movement? Who cannot work from home, for example? Hospitality workers, cleaners, tradespeople, for example, must continue to travel to and from work during a lockdown. In the course of this travel to and from work they will inevitably increase their points of contact and their risk — not by intention but by necessity.

Who packs and delivers the online grocery order? Who prepares and delivers the takeaway food? Who delivers the parcel with the online shopping order? There are people who must be mobile and at greater risk in order to sustain the safety of the privileged who stay home. 

Ahmed argues that fear works to restrict the capacities for movement for some bodies and increase the capacity for others. In this new COVID context, even as some appear to be more mobile their movement is restricted — in the service of those who have the privilege to stay safely at home. We can see the way the mobility of frontline workers is restricted and controlled as the movements of hotel quarantine cleaners are scrutinised in the press if they test positive for COVID, even if they did not realise they had the virus at the time and they broke no public health guidelines.

Returning to Ahmed’s work, we can think about the ways that fear works here to reinforce existing social hierarchies. She poses an important question that we should ask here:

‘which bodies become read as the origin of fear and as threatening “our” freedom?’

Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (p. 70-71)

 When we talk about COVID ‘rule breakers’ and people who pose a risk to the community, we’re often ignoring the ways that the risk is inevitably higher for some people because of the ways they are impacted by social inequalities. In addition to this increased risk, current COVID protocols routinely scrutinise the movements and practices of less privileged people — while the wealthy are afforded ways to bypass these measures or trusted to undertake these protocols without being watched. 

Photo by eggbank on Unsplash

This ‘Bondi cluster’, has, for many, shifted how much COVID risk we feel in our everyday lives. And in turn, that feeling of being more at risk shapes our everyday behaviour. We think more about washing our hands, we remind ourselves to bring a mask when we leave the house (especially after masks were mandated in many indoor settings in NSW), and we may be more conscious of socially distancing when we are out and about. While public health directives such as ‘stay at home’ orders are more rigid and enforced (e.g. do not leave your home unless it is for an essential reason), the feeling of fear and risk operates more like a soft and subtle circulating sense that inclines the community towards COVID-safer practices.

It’s hardly surprising that at times when we don’t feel that the virus is an imminent threat, safety protocols such as QR code check-ins may fall to the wayside. When the threat feels more present again we see these practices become more strictly enforced through public health directives but also more strictly adhered to by the public. In Canberra, for example, after many months of no COVID cases, a positive case visited some venues in the region. In the space of a week check-ins using the ACT Government’s ‘Check Inn CBR app’ doubled, in response to increased public health messaging and increased attention to the potential threat of the virus. 

It is important to remember, however, that even if these feelings of risk and fear may circulate at a collective level, they are experienced differently by different groups. Who gets to feel safe by moving less? Whose movements are most restricted? Who is afforded the privilege of movement without fear?

Expression of interest: applications for ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA)

The next round of the ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) scheme closes in November 2021, with funding beginning in 2023. Applications require a long lead time of development and mentor support.

If you are an early career researcher with an outstanding track record relative to opportunity who is currently around 3-4 years (but within 5 years by November 2021) post award of your doctorate (allowing for any career interruptions), and your background, interests and future research plans align with the Vitalities Lab, expressions of interest are now open for consideration for our sponsorship of your application. This opportunity to open to both domestic and overseas applicants.

If you wish to be considered, please email the following information to Professor Deborah Lupton by Friday 9 July 2021 (

  1. A Word document with three headings: a) outlining some broad details of your proposed project (approximately 500 words); b) statement of alignment with the Vitalities Lab’s research and why you want to be based here to do your project (approximately 500 words); and c) a statement about your research strengths and impact (i.e. what you thinkg would make you competitive for a DECRA) (approximately 500 words).
  2. Full CV, including list of academic publications.

Professor Lupton will select a maximum of two potential candidates to mentor and support their applications. UNSW Sydney provides extensive additional support to the candidates to develop their applications before submission.

For further information about the work of the Vitalities Lab and to ensure that your project fits well, please closely review the content of this website and Deborah Lupton’s recent publication profile.

General information about the ARC DECRA scheme is available here.

Our new book is now out – The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociomaterial Analysis

We are excited to announce that our co-authored Vitalities Lab team book has just been released. Details are available on Amazon and our publisher De Gruyter’s website. For a companion volume, check out the book co-edited by Deborah Lupton with Karen Willis, The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives, also just released.

We argue in the book that among many other changes to private and public life, the COVID-19 crisis has brought the humble face mask into new prominence. In the post-COVID world, it has become a significant object, positioned as one of the most important ways that people can protect themselves and others from infection with the novel coronavirus by acting as a barrier (however imperfect) between their breath and that of others.

The COVID mask is rich with symbolic meaning, affective forces and embodied sensations as well as practical value in these times of uncertainty, isolation, illness and death. The COVID mask is simultaneously a medical, social and multi-sensory device. Its presence or absence on the human face bears with it cultural, political and moral meanings. As the COVID crisis has intensified, fluctuated and diversified, so too, have these meanings.

Each chapter addresses a discrete topic related to the sociomaterial dimensions of COVID face masks. Chapter 1 introduces the rationale for the book, addressing the question of why sociomaterial theories are so important to make sense of the meanings and practices related to the face mask in the age of COVID. It provides the context for understanding the face mask as a sociocultural artefact, discussing the history of the face mask (and other facial coverings, such as veiling practices) internationally. This chapter also provides an overview of the theoretical perspectives we are using in our analysis. We draw particularly on the vital materialism offered in the work of feminist new materialist scholars and Indigenous and First Nations philosophies as well as domestication theory.

Photo credit: Deborah Lupton

Chapter 2 focuses on micropolitical and macropolitical aspects, ranging across international disputes over medical mask production and supply, the role played by peak health organisations such as the WHO, mass media and social media coverage and social movements seeking both to support and agitate against mass masking. In Chapter 3, we address the ways that COVID masks become incorporated into human bodies and everyday practices, bringing domestication theory together with more-than-human perspectives.

Photo credit: Deborah Lupton

Chapter 4 moves us deeper into our analysis of the embodied sensory and affective experience of mask wearing, focusing particularly on breath and breathing with and through a COVID mask. The artefact of the hand-crafted COVID mask is examined in Chapter 5. We bring perspectives from social analyses of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and crafting cultures to discuss the sociomaterialities of four different kinds of hand-crafted masks: the artisan mask, the home-made mask, the makeshift mask and the community drive mask. In Chapter 6, we turn our attention towards the concept of care and how this may be applied not only in the context of medical care and caring for oneself or other people by wearing a COVID mask, but the implications for the environment of careless use and disposal of masks.

The Epilogue brings together the threads of our arguments and provides some final thoughts on the COVID mask as a sociomaterial phenomenon.

Thinking about movement beyond health

Marianne Clark

Two people running on misty outdoor path covered in leaves.

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

As the weather shifts (almost imperceptibly if you ask this Canadian) from summer to fall here in Sydney, I find myself embracing new options for outdoor activities. Unlike my home country of Canada, where winter means donning layers (and layers) of fleece and down even for the shortest of walks, opportunities in Australia actually increase in the winter as the heat dissipates. As someone who loves moving, I’ve found getting outside regularly for a walk or dip in the ocean has helped make some days a bit easier over this past year. But, I also appreciate physical activity is not everyone’s cup of tea, nor are enjoyable and safe opportunities available to everyone for a range of reasons. 

I’ve written previously about the drawbacks of our social zeal for fitness and exercise, especially in the context of COVID 19. The widespread enthusiasm for fitness pulsing through our popular culture often overlooks the overlapping economic, physical, social and cultural factors that shape – and constrain –  people’s engagement. It’s also largely underpinned by ableist, classist, racialised and gendered assumptions about what constitutes physical activity, who and what bodies are able to participate, and where and how they do so. In other words, we often assume every/body CAN participate without taking into account how complicated it is. 

At the same time, social dialogue around physical activity makes a lot of assumptions around why people move. It often reduces activity to something that’s done in order ‘be healthy’ or to build an aesthetically pleasing body. In this framing, the ‘healthy’ body is read as the so-called beautiful body (and vice versa) and looking good and feeling good become conflated in one big proverbial mess. This unsatisfying equation overlooks the many other reasons people may or may not engage in different movement practices, and the multiple embodied, emotional and socially meaningful  experiences that might emerge.

Masculine presenting wheelchair user dances with femme presenting ambulatory dancer.
Disability scholars and integrated performance artists Lindsay Eales and Danielle Peers perform in Edmonton Alberta. Photo Credit: Marc J Chalifoux

I was recently reminded of how firmly entrenched these limiting ways of thinking about fitness actually are. Looking for a new physical outlet, I solicited a series of quotes for a personal trainer to design an outdoor program for me to follow on my own. My request, which specified I was NOT interested in setting goals or looking to lose weight, was met with a flurry of canned messages promising to help me ‘be my best self’ and full of generic (and cringeworthy) aspirational sound bytes worthy of their own critique. My original message expressed my interest in building better range of motion, engaging in skilful movement and having ‘fun’ (itself a problematic term but that’s another story), yet these themes were nowhere to be found in the responses I received. Instead, I was subtly reminded I should be striving to be fitter/buffer/slimmer in order to reach my ‘personal potential’. While (extremely) irritated at first, I realise this is a reflection of the broader ecosystem these professionals – all eking out a living in a competitive marketplace –  are working within. Many have likely been rewarded for their promises of helping people build beautiful better selves through exercise. 

But if we dig a little deeper, listen a little more carefully, there are other, important stories to tell. My interest in these ideas prompted my current research study on how Australians moved during COVID. I’m exploring how people re-created physical activity routines during various degrees of ‘lockdown’ and paying specific attention to the spaces, places, and technologies they used to make this happen. People’s movement practices are often connected to specific social and physical spaces such as fitness centres, dance and yoga studios, swimming pools, oceans, walking/running tracks and sports fields. But during COVID, access to these spaces has often been limited or even prohibited. 

In response, digital fitness options exploded, boasting their ability to help anyone move anytime, anywhere. But I was curious. I was curious about how people were using familiar spaces in and beyond the home in new ways to create new fitness routines and the role digital technologies actually played. I was also curious about the meanings these practices – and the spaces in which they were performed – held for people. How did relationships with one’s body and understandings of  ‘health’ change (or not) in these strange and stressful times? What ‘moved’ people to move, and what made it difficult?

A woman holds a phone and looks at digital self-tracking device on wrist.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Participants were recruited via social media and invited to participate in an online interview involving a virtual tour of their physical activity space (e.g., lounge room, repurposed garage, favourite walking track). They were also invited to keep digital photo diaries to document any thoughts, reflections and feelings related to these themes. Analysis is still underway and forthcoming in manuscripts currently under review, but in sum, people’s photos and narratives emphasised that movement meant more to them than the pursuit of ‘health – largely understood as a collection of bodily metrics – or a particular bodily aesthetic. Instead, it was intricately related to and intertwined with their emotional and physical experiences of living in and through the pandemic. It also gave way to experiences of escape and connection as well as expressions of mourning and joy. In these stories, people moved not as a ‘healthy’ practice in order to comply with expert advice, but as a creative and improvised form of self-care and care for others during the pandemic. Movement was also a way to create a sense of routine and certainty in a very uncertain and precarious time.

There’s more to say (watch this space or follow me on Twitter!) but I’m hopeful results can offer more expansive ways of thinking about bodies, movement and health. There’s been optimistic murmurings that COVID might help us think differently about many aspects of our everyday lives.  Perhaps this is a great opportunity to challenge some of the instrumental and frankly, fairly uninspiring ways we think about movement and moving bodies. 

Vitalities Lab Newsletter 10 Summer 2021

2 February 2021

It is summer in Sydney and we at the Vitalities Lab are back in the office for another new year. After some collective downtime we have hit the ground running, riding the ripple effects of our globally tumultuous 2020 and beginning to make sense of the post-COVID world. One phenomenon that has certainly been on our minds (and bodies) since our last newsletter is the COVID face mask. Since early in the pandemic we have followed the face mask as a health technology and a cultural and political artefact. We wrote about this for The Conversation in October, and in December we submitted the manuscript for our forthcoming monograph with De Gruyter, The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociomaterial Analysis, to be published later this year.

In early December, we were delighted to attend our first in-person event since very early last year – Digital Intimacies 6: Connection in Crisis at the University of Technology Sydney, from December 6th to 8th. Kudos to the organisers who pulled off an excellent three-day hybrid symposium plus a number of satellite events. We had a strong Vitalities Lab showing at DI6, presenting our research across a number of papers. On Day 1, Deborah Lupton presented ‘Trust, risk and digital media: Australians’ experiences of the COVID-19 crisis’, Leanne Downing presented ‘The moments you missed: Exploring the digital intimacies of telehealth psychology consults during the COVID crisis’, Marianne Clark presented ‘Crisis and the body: the digital health entanglements of COVID-19’, and Ash Watson presented ‘Being together in crisis: digital co-presence and intimacy during COVID-19’. On Day 2, Clare Southerton presented ‘The affective atmospheres of lockdown TikTok’.

Clare also presented a paper with Giselle Newton, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Research in Health at UNSW, at the Cultures of TikTok in the Asia Pacific symposium titled ‘Everyday TikTok Talk: A method for a reflexive encounter with #donorconceived’. The symposium was hosted by Curtin University on December 7.

In December, Marianne Clark with colleagues Holly Thorpe and Julie Brice published Feminist New Materialisms, Sport and Fitness: A Lively Entanglement with Palgrave Macmillan, part of the New Femininities in Digital, Physical and Sporting Cultures book series. This book offers the first critical examination of the contributions of feminist new materialist thought to the study of sport, fitness, and physical culture. 

Ash Watson published another edition of So Fi Zine, featuring creative submissions from authors around the world and a guest editorial by Ruha Benjamin. So Fi Zine is a sociological fiction zine, free to read online at

Ash also launched her debut novel Into the Sea, in conversation with Shanthi Robertson as part of The Australian Sociological Association’s 2020 conference. You can watch a recording of the launch here, or grab a copy of the book here.

Below we list our recent publications,  presentations, and other activity not mentioned above.

Academic Publications

  • Lupton, D. (2021) Young people’s use of digital health in the Global North: narrative review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, available online at
  • Watson, A. (2021) Writing sociological fiction. Qualitative Research, online first.
  • Lupton, D. and Southerton, C. (2021) The thing-power of the Facebook assemblage: why do users stay on the platform? Journal of Sociology, online first.
  • Kirby, E., Watson, A., Churchill, B., Robards, B. and LaRochelle, L. (2021) Queering the Map: stories of love, loss and (be)longing within a digital cartographic archive. Media, Culture and Society, online first.
  • Lupton, D. (2021) Self-tracking. In Abel, J. et al. (eds), Information: Keywords. Columbia University Press
  • Lupton, D. (2021) Afterword: future methods for digital food studies. In Leer, J. and Krogager, S.G.S. (eds), Research Methods in Digital Food Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 222-227
  • Watson, A. and Lupton, D. (2020) Tactics, affects and agencies in digital privacy narratives: a story completion study. Online Information Review, online first.
  • Watson, A., Lupton, D. and Michael, M. (2020) Enacting intimacy and sociality at a distance in the COVID-19 crisis: the sociomaterialities of home-based communication technologies. Media International Australia, online first. doi:
  • Lupton, D. (2020) Caring dataveillance: women’s use of apps to monitor pregnancy and children. In Green, L., Holloway, D., Stevenson, K., Leaver, T. and Haddon, L. (eds), The Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children. London: Routledge, pp. 393-402
  • Lupton, D. (2020) The sociology of mobile apps. In Rohlinger, D. and Sobieraj, S. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Digital Media. New York: Oxford, online first. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780197510636.013.15
  • Brice, J., Clark, M., & Thorpe, H. (2020). Feminist collaborative becomings: an entangled process of knowing through fitness objects, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2020.1820560
  • Newman, C., MacGibbon, J., Smith, A. K. J., Broady, T., Lupton, D., Davis, M., Bear, B., Bath, N., Comensoli, D., Cook, T., Duck-Chong, E., Ellard, J., Kim, J., Rule, J., & Holt, M. (2020). Understanding Trust in Digital Health among Communities Affected by BBVs and STIs in Australia. Sydney: UNSW Centre for Social Research in Health. Available at
  • Fox, B., Goggin, G., Lupton, D., Regenbrecht, H., Scuffham, P. and Vucetic, B. (2020) The Internet of Things. Report for the Australian Council of Learned Academies. Melbourne: ACOLA. Available at
  • Robards, B., Watson, A., Kirby, E., Churchill, B., & LaRochelle, L. (2020). Queering the Map: Physical traces and digital places of queer lives. AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research, 2020.
  • Byron, P., McKee, A., Watson, A., Litsou, K. and Ingham, R. (2020) Reading for realness: porn literacies, digital media and young people. Sexuality & Culture, online first.

Other Publications

Workshops and Presentations

  • Ash hosted a public online workshop on September 9 on “Social Science Fiction” as part of Social Sciences Week Australia. The workshop was supported by The Sociological Review and the Vitalities Lab, UNSW. The recording is available here.
  • Deborah delivered the keynote for UNSW’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences HDR conference on September 16
  • On October 2, Deborah gave an invited seminar presentation for San Francisco State University
  • Deborah was an invited member of the panel for Bold Thinking – Risky Business: The Politics of Preparing for a Pandemic, hosted by La Trobe University on October 13
  • Deborah gave the keynote address for the Data-Driven Culture Conference at the University of Turku on October 23
  • Ash was invited to speak at a November 5 seminar on autoethnography for the Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher sessions run by The Australian Sociological Association
  • On November 6, Deborah gave an invited seminar presentation for the University of Minnesota
  • Deborah delivered a keynote for the Lockdown: Mental Illness, Wellness and COVID-19 conference, hosted by Curtin University and the University of East London on November 17
  • On November 24, Marianne presented a paper at TASA’s 2020 conference titled ‘How movement comes to matter: Exploring the sensory atmospheres and embodied affects of physical activity during COVID-19’
  • Also on November 24, Deborah was an invited member of a plenary panel on Sociology and COVID-19 at the TASA annual conference
  • Ash was the chair of a plenary titled Sociological Insight for the Now Normal, part of TASA’s 2020 conference, on November 25
  • Deborah gave a keynote at the TASA Social Theory and COVID-19 conference on November 27
  • On November 30 Deborah gave an invited presentation to the Australian Academic of Technology and Engineering on the ACOLA Internet of Things report
  • Marianne gave an invited lecture on December 1 for the University of Toronto titled ‘Introduction to Post Qualitative Research’

Media Appearances

Finally, since our last newsletter, Ash completed her term as Secretary of TASA, Clare became a founding member of the TikTok Cultures Network and Marianne was invited to join the Annals of Leisure Research as an Editorial Board Member.

Animal Crossing Fans: Come and play with us!

Are you an Animal Crossings fan? Meg at the Vitalities Lab is now looking for Animal Crossing players to participate in an in-game interview, to learn more about their experience of playing the game while social distancing in 2020.

Image description: Meg on her island in Halloween dress with her villager, Gigi, who is a purple frog

Here are the details:

My Happy Place: Exploring the use of ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ during ‘Social Distancing’ (Ethics Approval HC200424)

What does the interview involve?

Meg will visit your Animal Crossing island in-game, while talking to you over Zoom or the Nintendo Online app! You can show her all your favourite places, characters and if you like, swap items! It will only take 60 mins and should be lots of fun.

Image description: Meg in Halloween dress and a villager, Pate, who is a blue duck.

Who can participate?

You must be:

  • 18 years or older
  • A fan of Animal Crossing who has played the game this year while social distancing
  • Speak English
  • Be located in Australia, America, Canada or Europe (if you are a university student studying in these countries but are in your home country right now, you’re also welcome!)
Image description: Meg on her island celebrating Halloween with a villager, Soleil, who is an orange hamster.

How can I participate?

Contact Meg at the below email address- questions are also welcome!
Please contact the following person via email to register your interest in taking part in the research:

NameDr. Megan Rose (Chief Investigator)
PositionAssociated Researcher, Vitalities Lab, UNSW

Is social media like food?

Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash

Clare Southerton

It’s becoming more common to hear about social media ‘fasts’, digital detoxes, as well as media consumption practices understood in terms of digital ‘calories’, nutrition and diets. The language of health, wellness and the diet industry has well and truly spread to how we talk about social media, as well as other technologies like smartphones and video games devices.

The 5:2 Digital Diet, for example, models itself on the popular 5:2 fasting diet, and recommends that we abstain from screens two days a week. Devotees are instructed to ‘delete all email and social media apps from your phone Friday night and reinstall Sunday morning.’ It’s also recommended that you fill your screen-free days with exercise and ‘getting out into nature’, which is ‘proven to help with all sorts of ailments’. It’s clear that there is an emphasis on wellness here that mirrors food-based diets and lifestyle programs.

Ah yes, the relaxing beauty of nature

Notably social media, and technology in general, is often positioned as the evil opposite of nature. Nature is largely framed simplistically as space of retreat and repair, for humans and from humans. This narrative, of course, misses the complex politics surrounding what in fact constitutes ‘natural’ and the ways outdoor spaces are accessible more often to the privileged. Even more hypocritical, this relatively recent ‘return to nature’ neglects the histories of many Indigenous peoples: colonists’ racist actions and dispossession of land were predicated on the supremacist assumption that a connection to nature made Indigenous people less-human.

Beyond detoxing and fasting, others advocate for more ‘nutritionally’ focused approach to digital technologies and social media. We might think about this as akin to a ‘balanced’ diet and focused more on well being, and less on purity and abstinence. However, focusing on the ‘nutrition’ or ‘quality’ of digital content is highly subjective, and fails to challenge the underlying problems with this ‘social media diet’ mentality. This kind of language is reminiscent of the kind of shame and moralism that surrounds ‘unhealthy’ and ‘junk’ foods. The problem that gets left out of conversations about our anxieties around social media use and our anxieties about food — what about pleasure?

On this question, it’s useful to turn to the excellent work of Professor Helen Keane who wrote the highly influential book What’s Wrong With Addiction?. She draws out the entangled relationship between anxieties about pleasure and the popularisation of addiction as a concept. She writes that ‘[d]esire, discipline and pleasure are appropriated into an economy of health and disease’ (p. 18). When we think about social media, we can see exactly what Helen is talking about. The fact that social media is appealing quickly becomes mobilised as proof of its unhealthiness, its need to be managed by medical professionals and its ‘addictive’ qualities.

On Monday night’s episode of ABC’s Q & A, panelists discussed ‘the consequences of our growing dependence on social media’, with some arguing that the addictive nature of social media platforms has now reached crisis point. The negative mental health effects of social media were largely taken for granted, despite existing research on social media’s impact on well being and mental health being far from conclusive. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that social media impacts are both positive and negative (and many studies that reveal more nuanced effects). Beyond the limited framing of wellbeing there is a rich literature exploring digital cultures and communities on various platforms.

The show also participated in much of the same kind of shaming that goes on for those who consume too much of the wrong thing – even if often when it comes to social media consumption the shaming is usually directed at oneself. There are interesting parallels too with other addictive substances – junk food or illicit drugs – whereby the ‘addict’ is painted as morally deficient and lacking ‘willpower’.

‘Popular addiction discourse constructs everyday substances and experiences as potentially dangerous, and sees risk, dysfunction and disorder everywhere.’

Helen Keane, What’s Wrong With Addiction? (p. 27)

So let’s get back to the original question — is social media like food? In many ways I think the comparison is apt but not for the reasons many are suggesting. Like food, social media consumption is embedded in socio-cultural meanings. I don’t think there is anything intrinsically more wholesome about sharing deep inner feelings with a friend compared with smashing a game of Candy Crush. But certainly our shared social norms may identify one practice as connection and another as addiction.

Now after all this typing I guess I’m out of digital calories…better do a run around the block so I can check my email.

Time in the ‘Time of Corona’

Katrine Meldgaard Kjær, Clare Southerton, Marianne Clark, Ash Watson

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread globally, our experiences of it have shifted over time since initial reports of the virus hit the headlines in January. These temporal shifts can be subtle, almost negligible, or more confronting. Yet even when they are more noticeable, it can be hard to orient yourself to how the pandemic felt only weeks earlier. Things feel so slippery in the ‘time of Corona’. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to be ‘felt’ throughout Australia, Katrine (one of the authors of this blog post), was visiting the Vitalities Lab from Denmark and had to return home suddenly — only two weeks into a planned four-week trip. The rest of us, despite living in the same area of Sydney, were also distanced as local movement restrictions set in and we became confined to our homes. Now, six months later, the pandemic continues to unfold locally as well as globally in unpredictable ways. We continue to live with and navigate new waves of infections and changing social restrictions that impact our work and the ways we connect and collaborate with others.  

Katrine’s sudden departure was jarring, a moment that marked the beginning of a rapidly shifting timeline. Despite — or perhaps because of  — the uncertainty we all faced, we wanted to keep writing together as a way to maintain the engagement and support we found in each other as four early-career academics. Katrine initiated a collaborative document so we could share our experiences  and reflections as the pandemic unfolded. All four authors wrote into a Google Doc whenever we felt like it, not distinguishing between who wrote what, not following any particular format or timeline, and each writing into the space where the previous writer had finished, regardless of the narrative thread. These contributions varied wildly, oscillating between an ‘up close and personal’ approach documenting our feelings or personal responses to the unfolding news each day as we tried to make sense of new routines, as well as more arms-length approaches to thinking through the social and political complexities of the pandemic.

Now, we realise we’ve been writing this document for more than six months and what we have is a record, of sorts, of our own COVID era(s). Yet, looking at the 9000 word document after two months of writing and sharing the odd Skype call, we recognise that what we have is much more than the chronicling of a series of specific moments, experiences and thoughts from the COVID-19 time. Rather when taken as a whole, the document reveals something about the peculiar, slightly disorienting quality of ‘COVID time’ and our experiences of it.

Others have written about the strangeness of this time and the way our perception of time has changed, with references to things that are ‘in the time of Corona’. Like ‘love in the time of corona’ or ‘trust in the time of COVID19’ or ‘cleaning in the time of coronavirus’ or ‘how to do [insert literally anything here] in the time of COVID’. There are also a growing number of memes and social media posts that point to the unusual and distorted way time seems to unfold right now; somehow both frantically accelerated and painstakingly slow at the same time. It seems we are unsettled by this unfamiliar experience of time, and are searching for ways to express and make sense of the feeling that we are living in a very specific and extraordinary time. But, even this is not quite accurate. We are not so much living in a specific period of time (because we don’t know when this time will end, and even its beginnings were somewhat murky). Rather, the quality of time has changed. Any illusion of time as linear, predictable and quantifiable, has been completely disrupted. Time now seems even more multiple, elastic and unpredictable than ever. 

We often think about time as that which progresses ‘naturally’ forward at a steady pace and is broken up into predictable units (minutes, hours, days) that structure our days and lives, something that is challenged in COVID time. During the COVID-19 pandemic the hours, days, and weeks just feel different than they used to. Schools, workplaces and businesses are re-opening and closing in what feels like a haphazard trajectory. Time is neither linear or predictable nor is it associated with steady progress. Rather time is peculiar, both accelerated and slowed down, bringing both hope and despair as we realise this is far from over.

Moments that disrupt our sense of time as linear are hardly new though. While waiting in a waiting room to hear the outcome of a medical test, for example, the passage of time can seem very different to when we’re spending an enjoyable evening with friends (if we’re ever able to do that again). Indeed, this linear narrative of time has long been critiqued by Indigenous and First Nations scholars who highlight the ways that chronological ‘clock time’ has been imposed as part of violent colonising processes and indigenous ways of marking time were (and continue to be) denigrated as ‘backward’.

Throughout western history, time has also been conceptualised in alternative ways that might help us make sense of our experience of COVID time. French philosopher Henri Bergson, for instance, argued that time should not be understood quantitatively, as units that can be measured — days, hours, minutes — but rather qualitatively as what he called duration. By this Bergson means that understanding time as duration means thinking about  time as a complex layering, a constant process of becoming such that it is not possible to actually capture, divide, or quantify it.

Elizabeth Freeman also imagines time as qualitative and argues that time and norms are closely connected, and that the quantification of time can have normative effects: she calls this “chrononormativity”. She argues that we expect lifespans to play out in predictable, linear (heteronormative) paths as we move through life stages — there is a ‘right time’ to commit to a monogamous relationship, a ‘right time’ to have children, a ‘right time’ to have certain types of careers, and so on. Freeman argues that the idea of the steady, linear progression of doing things at certain times is related to cultural separations between what is considered  ‘normal’ from what is considered ‘deviant’ or ‘different’. 

In COVID times, we see this reconfigured in ideas of the ‘right time’ to go back to work, the ‘right time’ to re-open institutions, the ‘right time’ to react to new outbreaks etc. The deep ties between ideas of time and norms for structuring life are also evident in the stress tied to the ways in which COVID time does not unfold as we ‘normally’ expect time to, with specific dates marking the ‘normal’ rhythm of going (back to), for example, school or work. 

Therefore, as COVID continues to unfold in unpredictable and nonlinear ways, we are forced to confront our limited understanding and vocabulary of time. The pandemic is indeed not unfolding in a linear way. Instead, it is filled with openings, closings, going back and forths. Embracing alternative ways of thinking about time and normality may be helpful tools as we attempt to make sense of ‘Corona time’ and for alleviating the stress associated with the disruption of ‘normal’ time as we usually know it. 

Vitalities Lab Newsletter 9 Spring 2020

10 September 2020

Spring has arrived in the southern hemisphere and we in the Vitalities Lab are welcoming the warmer weather as we continue to adjust to our work from home routines and re-imagine our research projects during the COVID pandemic. As we all work to navigate these challenging conditions, we are particularly excited to share one of our new initiatives, the ‘Breaking Methods’ YouTube Webinar Series. These slide-based webinars showcase some of the innovative social research methods we’ve adapted, designed, and engaged with and explain how we’re analysing the material these methods generate.

In these webinars we explore everything from storyboards and mapping methods, digital photo diaries and zine creation, to methods braiding and the use of TikTok and YouTube content as qualitative data. The series is designed to be accessible to students and researchers alike and we hope it offers some fresh ideas about how to keep research projects going in a time of much uncertainty.

A collection of handmade masks

We also continue to think through the various impacts of COVID-19 on professional, personal, and physical lives and to share these reflections on our blog. Lab members have explored  the ‘myth of the digital shift’ as we transition to working and conducting research online as well as the embodied experiences and social meanings of mask-wearing during the pandemic.  Guest posts by visiting scholars offer thoughtful insights into the ways COVID can help us recognize the constructed and political dimensions of healthcare and explore how the concept of kawai (cuteness) is used within the video game Animal Crossing to enable experiences of connection and caring in stressful times

Beyond the Vitaities Lab blog, lab members have also contributed further afield with Clare Southerton writing about how public shaming in the context of COVID-19 can harm public health efforts in The Conversation.  In the same outlet, Deborah synthesised recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to provide a useful snapshot of how the pandemic is impacting our everyday lives. 

In the meantime, we continue to work on our various social research projects (highlighted in our previous newsletter) and to engage in research activity and dialogue with colleagues in Australia and around the globe. A summary of recent publications,  presentations, and other activity not mentioned above is provided below. 

Academic Publications

  • Baker S, Buttigieg B, Cantillon Z, Pavlidis A, Rodriguez Castro L and Watson A (2020) Getting Students to ‘Do’ Introductory Sociology: Analysis of a blended and flipped interactive workshop. Journal of Sociology. Published OnlineFirst 8 July 2020 [Authorship order is alphabetical]. 
  • Clark, M. (2020). Signs, beaches, and bodies in pandemic times: A visual essay. Media International Australia, online first.
  • Lupton, D. (2020) Thinking with care about personal data profiling: a more-than-human approach. International Journal of Communication, 14, 3165-3183, available online at 
  • Lupton, D. and Watson, A. (2020) Towards a more-than-human digital data studies: developing research-creation methods. Qualitative Research, online first. doi:org/10.1177/1468794120939235 
  • Lupton, D. (2020) ‘Not the real me’: social imaginaries of personal data profiling. Cultural Sociology, online first. 
  • Lupton, D. (2020) A more-than-human approach to bioethics: the example of digital health. Bioethics, online first. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12798 
  • Lupton, D. (2020) Special section on ‘Sociology and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’. Health Sociology Review, 29(2), 111-112. 
  • Lupton, D. (2020) Digital media and health. In Merkin, D. (ed.), Sage International Encyclopedia of Mass Media and Society. Online. Available at 
  • Rich, E., Lewis, S., Lupton, D. and Miah, A. (2020) Digital Health Generation? Young People’s Use of ‘Healthy Lifestyle’ Technologies. Bath: University of Bath, UK. Available at Available at
  • Rasmussen, M.L, Southerton, C., Fela, G.. Marshall, D., Rasmussen, M.L, Cover, R., and Aggleton, P. (2020) ‘Playing recognition politics: queer theoretical reflections on LGBTQ youth social policy in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s’ Archives of Sexual Behavior, 

Other Publications

  • Watson, A. So Fi Zine edition #7. Published August 21, 2020. 
  • Watson, A. Into the Sea, Leiden: Brill. [Novel] Published June 4, 2020

Workshops and Presentations

In June, Marianne gave a keynote lecture to graduate students at the IT University of Copenhagen enrolled in a special course called ‘Research Interrupted’. Marianne’s talk, ‘The pandemic pivot: Re-imagining relationality and physicality in unfolding and uncertain research contexts’ addressed strategies for adapting social research during pandemic conditions.

In August , Deborah shared an overview of early findings from her project examining Australians’ experiences of COVID in a seminar hosted by the Centre for Health and Social Research (19 August 2020). She also gave the Wellness + Society plenary address at Sorbonne University, Paris in September titled ‘ COVID life narratives: a sociomaterial approach’ (4 September 2020).

Ash, Marianne and Deborah participated in the “Living In, With and Beyond the ‘Smart Home’” symposium hosted by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making in September. Marianne shared her paper co-authored with Deborah titled, ‘This is where I come to breathe’: The unexpected affects and affordances of exercising at home. Ash presented, ‘From workplaces to smart/home work spaces: Insights into the affective and requisitional presence of domestic digital technologies during COVID-19’ a paper co-authored with Deborah and Mike Michaels from the University of Exeter, UK.

Ash has also been busy with her involvement in TASA and sharing her passion for sociological fiction and zine making through the following events.

  • Sociological Fiction. Anthropology and Sociology Seminar Series, University of Western Australia. 28 August, 2020. 
  • Zines for Data Justice. Ida B. Wells Data Justice Lab, Princeton University. 31 July, 2020  
  • TASA Rapid Peer Support Session. The Australian Sociological Association. 4 June, 2020.

Media Appearances

  • Deborah was quoted in a Sydney Morning Herald article on Australians’ experiences of COVID-19, 31 May 2020
  • Deborah was also quoted in an ABC News Online article on wellness influencers and conspiracy theories, 16 June 2020
  • An article in featured Deborah’s research on Australians’ experiences of COVID-19 in August
  • Clare Southerton was interviewed for SBS Radio for a piece titled, ‘Why are COVID-19 infections surging among young people?’ 6 August 2020