The ethics of everyday technologies and the “Amazon Prime Mom” phenomenon

Clare Southerton, Marianne Clark and Vicki Harman

Digital technologies and platforms are increasingly important parts of our everyday lives, so much so that it often makes more sense to think about how we come to exist with and through these technologies, rather than how we “use” them. This entanglement between humans and technologies can be uncomfortable at times, even troubling, as they unsettle commonly held assumptions about what social life should look like. Importantly, these relationships and our negotiations of them always take place within, and are reflective of, the specific socio-political conditions of the time.

A New Yorker article published in late 2019, titled “The Quiet Protests of Sassy Mom Merch” by Jia Tolentino, explores the intimate and somewhat fraught relationship between technology and user through the case of Amazon Prime and motherhood. Specifically, Tolentino examines the expression of this complex relationship as it manifests in the form of “sassy mom merch” which includes T-shirts boasting slogans such as “Coffee, wine and Amazon Prime”. While the notion of mums wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “sassy” declarations of a particular form of motherhood might initially seem trivial, it emerges as an emotionally laden phenomenon with socio-political relevance. It brings the sphere of family life into focus and situates mothers’ online purchasing practices within the broader socio—material and political conditions of motherhood. The slogans playfully convey the important role of the online shopping platform in helping mothers meet the daily demands of child rearing and keeping a household going in a less-laborious and less self-sacrificing manner than other available – and celebrated- representations of motherhood circulating. This includes the contrasting figure of “The Pinterest Mom” who carefully crafts different ideas into new combinations for her family. The voices of mothers and t-shirt producers captured in the article suggest that such merchandise is a way of inserting some humour into a situation where the expectations around motherhood have become heightened and contradictory. Plouff, an owner-creater of an Etsy store interviewed for the article elaborates:

“It’s true that you’re supposed to act like you’re a stay-at-home mom, but you’re also supposed to have a full-time job,” Plouff said. “It’s expected that your hair and makeup should be done, and that your house is spotless, but also that you can afford child care, and if you work, when do you have time for your child? You really can’t win, so you just have to laugh.”

Wearing t-shirts with “coffee, wine, and Amazon Prime” emblazoned across the chest may then be a   public declaration that one sometimes fails to meet the near-impossible-ideals of intensive mothering and that one is OK with this. These mums may be attempting to signal that they do things differently, that they in part refuse the expectations placed upon them, although of course this refusal is performed through the market and it comes at a price. Interestingly, the article highlights that such merchandise is often produced by entrepreneurial mothers seeking to combine childcare and employment.

Tolentino’s piece also draws our attention to a tension that emerges between mothers’ need for convenience, and the limitation of “sassy mom merch” as a means by which to critique the structural problems facing mothers, or society at large. She highlights the ways “Amazon Prime moms” are symptomatic of the unachievable standards of motherhood noting “it seemed to me that what actually sucked was the idea that kids absolutely needed confetti on their birthday, and it was a mom’s job to get it”. However, she also contemplates the motivations of those who embrace the image of “Amazon Prime mom” while – in her analysis – largely remaining disengaged from broader concerns like the labour practices (warehouse workers and delivery drivers) implicated in the use of Amazon Prime and social issues such as maternity leave and childcare.

Through the juxtaposition Tolentino sets up between the discussions her own friends have about “socialism and universal childcare” and the Amazon Prime mum’s approach, the author (perhaps unintentionally) invites the reader to see “sassy mom merch” indicative of a mother that is more interested in buying things than important political issues. However, perhaps inadvertently, is this placing one more demand on mothers? That is, to demonstrate the “right” kind of ethical consumption and political awareness.

Given this starting point for sociological analysis, we might ask – who is let “off the hook” here? This account doesn’t give us the full picture of the ways in which technologies, practices and relations of power constitute what is possible in this scenario. Nor does it invite us to question the social, economic or material conditions that give rise to mothers’ practices and choices, rather it locates mothers and their choices as “the problem”. In so doing it places other institutions, systems of governance, relationships and individuals outside of the analysis. There is, perhaps, altogether too much emphasis placed on the choices that mothers make – whether they use Amazon Prime, whether they discuss universal childcare– rather than the conditions from which those choices emerge. While certainly the critique of Amazon’s business ethics is a fair one, addressing this critique at the level of individual consumer choices is limited. There may be a range of socio-economic factors that create conditions in which Amazon becomes an important source of goods for these mothers. Affluent city dwellers may have access to ethical choices that may be much more difficult for those living in less accessible areas, or with less means. Furthermore, there are a number of beneficiaries of the mother’s labour – that is the easy purchasing of goods on Amazon – such as fathers, who face no such critique. Indeed, even Amazon gets off lightly when individual choice becomes the focus of our criticisms as it is the consumer who is supposed to make the correct choice, rather than the company.

The example of “sassy mom merch” and the reaction to “Amazon Prime moms” reveals the way our preoccupation with individual choices can come at the cost of accounting for the complex context that makes these choices possible. This is not to say that there is no responsibility for individuals per se, rather how we understand this responsibility needs to be broadened to include all the important actors. It’s always easier and more comfortable to attribute all the responsibility to an individual – in this case a mother – rather than confront the reality that there are companies like Amazon with significant power and inadequate laws that allow these companies to exploit their vulnerable employees. The messy relations of power that must be shifted to change the everyday reality for mothers far exceed a choice between being an “Amazon Prime mom” or a “Pinterest mom” or choosing not to use Amazon Prime. Though the “sassy merch” may not challenge the impossible expectations on mothers or fight for social change, by finding humour in the imperfections of motherhood they provide spaces for solidarity and connection.

Vitalities Lab Newsletter Number 7

6 February 2020

The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Team members are Dr Ashleigh Watson, Dr Clare Southerton and Dr Marianne Clark. Further details here.

New academic publications

Clark, M. I., & Thorpe, H. (2019). Towards diffractive ways of knowing women’s moving bodies: A Baradian experiment with the Fitbit/motherhood entanglement. Sociology of Sport Journal, Online first  https://doi.org/10.1123/ssj.2018-0173

Clark, M. I., Costas-Bradstreet, C., Holt, N. L., & Spence, J. C. (2019). Parental perceptions of a national program that funds sport participation for low-income children and youth in Canada. Leisure Sciences, 1-17.

Thorpe, H. & Clark, M.I. (2019). Gut Feminism, new materialisms and sportwomen’s embodied health: the case of RED-S in endurance athletes. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2019.1631879

Thorpe, H., Clark, M. & Brice, J. Sportswomen as ‘biocultural creatures’: understanding embodied health experiences across sporting cultures. BioSocieties (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-019-00176-2

Barbour, K., Clark, M.I., & Jeffrey, A. (2019). Expanding understandings of wellbeing through researching women’s experiences of intergenerational somatic dance classes. Leisure Studies, DOI: 10.1080/02614367.2019.1653354

Southerton, C. and McCann, H. (2019) ‘Queerbaiting and real person slash: the case of Larry Stylinson’, in J. Brennan (Eds.) Queerbaiting and Fandom: Teasing Fans through Homoerotic Possibilities, University of Iowa Press, pp. 161-163.

Lupton, D. (2019) ‘Things that matter’: poetic inquiry and more-than-human health literacy. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, online first. doi:10.1080/2159676X.2019.1690564

Lupton, D. (2020) Better understanding about what’s going on’: young Australians’ use of digital technologies for health and fitness. Sport, Education and Society, 25(1), 1-13.

Lupton, D. (2020) The story completion method and more-than-human theory: finding and using health information. Sage Research Methods Cases, available online at https://methods.sagepub.com/case/story-completion-method-more-than-human-theory-health-information

Lupton, D. (2020) The Internet of Things: social dimensions. Sociology Compass, online first. doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12770

Lupton, D. (2020) Teaching and learning guide for: The Internet of Things: social dimensions. Sociology Compass, online first. doi: org.10.1111/soc4.12777

Other publications

The AKE zine, volume 3, edited by Ash with Laura Rodriguez Castro and Samantha Trayhurn with the AKE Collective, was published.

The latest edition of ‘SoFi’ magazine (#6), edited by Ash and guest-edited by Deborah, was published. Its theme is more-than-human theory and future-oriented research.

Workshops/presentations

Ash presented and co-ran an invited workshop, ‘Affect, Knowledge and Embodiment: A Critical Feminist Arts/Research Workshop’ at the Australian National University on 21 November 2019.

Deborah gave a keynote at the 5th Australian Food, Society and Culture Network symposium, ‘Data, diets, digitalism: emergent food research methodologies’, University of Sydney, 15 November 2019, talking about her research on digital food cultures.

On 18 November 2019, we held a second ‘Re/imagining Personal Data’ workshop. In this one, we experimented with two new creative writing methods: Data Letters and Data Kondo. A post about the method and process can be found here.

Data Letters and Data Kondo activities

Clare gave a paper entitled ‘Intimate things: rethinking distraction in the “addictive” reach for the smartphone’ at the Dangerous Consumptions conference held at UNSW Sydney, 21-22 November 2019.

Ash gave an invited talk on the topic of ‘Post-PhD – What’s next?’ at the TASA Postgraduate Day, Western Sydney University, 25 November 2019. She also gave an invited keynote and workshop on creativity and methodological innovation in the sociology of familial and intimate relationships at the TASA Families and Relationships Thematic Group event, Western Sydney University, 29 November 2019.

Workshop activities at the TASA Families and Relationships workshop

The TASA Health Day, Western Sydney University, 29 November 2019, was on the theme of digital health. Deborah gave a keynote workshop, inviting participants to create ‘postcards from the future’ related to imagined digital health technologies. Clare gave a presentation on her project about intimacy and queer sex education on YouTube.

All Vitalities Lab team members attended the Disrupting Data Roundtable held by the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation and the Data Justice group at UNSW on 2 December 2019. Deborah and Ash gave presentations on innovative research methods to elicit people’s understandings and feelings about their personal data, and Clare acted as a discussant for one of the sessions.

Deborah gave a presentation on creative methods at the Re/humanising Automated Decision-Making Network symposium, Monash University, 13 December, joining other members of the network at the its first meeting. The network is funded by the Swedish Foundation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and includes members from Sweden, Denmark and Finland as well as from Australia.

Media appearances

Deborah’s research on fat politics was was quoted in article on fat stigma published on the ABC Life website

Vitalities Lab visitors

Professor Roger Burrows, Newcastle University, UK, gave a guest seminar presentation about his research on British attitudes to Brexit, 18 November 2019. Dr Alexandra Ryborg Jonsson and Professor Susanne Reventlow, both from the University of Copenhagen, visited on 2 December 2019 to meet with Deborah to talk about mutual research interests.

We welcomed two visiting fellows: Associate Professor Minna Ruckenstein, University of Helsinki from 29 November 2019 to 22 January 2020 and Dr Vicki Harman, University of Surrey from 6 to 17 January 2019. During Vicki’s stay, she gave a workshop discussing the visual arts methods she used in her research on female survivors of domestic violence.

Deborah introducing Vicki Harman at her workshop on visual art in research

Vitalities Lab Newsletter Number 6

VITALITIES LAB NEWSLETTER

Number 6, 6 November 2019

The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Team members are Dr Ashleigh Watson, Dr Clare Southerton and Dr Marianne Clark. Further details here.

New team member

The VLab welcomes a new team member: postdoctoral fellow Dr Marianne Clark (pictured below left), who received her doctorate in human movement and social theory from the University of Alberta.

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New Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence Research Grant

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Automated Decision-Making and Society, led by RMIT University, was announced in October. Deborah is one of the 18 Chief Investigators across this eight university centre. She will be leading the UNSW Node of the Centre, as well as the Health Focus Area, and will be a co-leader of the People Program. The Centre is funded from 2020 to 2026. More details are here.

New book

Deborah’s new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives was published in October. Further details of the book, including excerpts, can be found here.

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Other new publications

Southerton, C., Damkjaer, M.S. and A. Albrechtslund (2019) Photo sharing as participatory surveillance. In Cultures of Participation: Arts, Digital Media and Cultural Institutions, Routledge.

Lupton, D. (2019) Toward a more-than-human approach to neurotechnologies. American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience, 10(4), 174-176.

Presentations/workshops

On 1 October the VLab hosted the ‘Re-imagining Personal Data’ workshop as a satellite event of the Association of Internet Researchers Conference, which was held later that week at QUT in Brisbane. Deborah convened the workshop with Annette Markham from Aarhus University and Larissa Hjorth from RMIT University. (Photo below shows a participant with one of the activities completed in the workshop.)

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Clare was involved in two presentations at the Association of Internet Researchers Conference:

  • Damkjaer, M. S., Southerton, C., and Albrechtslund A. ‘Relief from communication: Parental surveillance technologies, trust and care’ (photo from the presentation below).
  • McCann, H. and Southerton, C. ‘Fangirls and fake news’.
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Other activities

In October, Deborah travelled to Berlin for the first meeting of the The Lancet and Financial Times ‘Governing Health Futures 2030: Growing Up in a Digital World’ Commission. She and other commissioners, from peak international organisations such as the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the OECD, the UN and UNICEF, are working on a report that is due for completion in 2021. The German Health Minister came to the meeting to discuss his country’s digital health initiatives – the photo below shows Deborah with the other commissioners and the Minister (in the middle).

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Media appearances

  • The photo sharing chapter co-authored by Clare was cited in a New York Times article about parents sharing photos of their children online.
  • Deborah was quoted in a Sydney Morning Herald article about mothers’ use of smartphones and social media.

VLab visitors

We welcome Dr Jens Lindberg, Umea University, Sweden, visiting the VLab from 1 October 2019 to 31 August 2020 and doctoral student Mr Jordan Mackenzie, University of Stirling, Scotland, visiting from 5 November to 16 December 2019

Vitalities Lab Newsletter Number 5

VITALITIES LAB NEWSLETTER

Number 5, 11 September 2019

The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Team members are Dr Ashleigh Watson and Dr Clare Southerton. Further details here.

New publications

  • Maslen, S. and Lupton, D. (2019) ‘Keeping it real’: women’s enactments of lay health knowledges and expertise on Facebook. Sociology of Health & Illness, online first. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12982
  • Lupton, D. (2019) ‘The internet both reassures and terrifies’: exploring the more-than-human worlds of health information using the story completion method. Medical Humanities, online first. org/10.1136/medhum-2019-011700

Presentations/workshops

19 July: Ashleigh convened ‘Affect, Knowledge and Embodiment: A Critical Feminist Arts/Research Workshop’ at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Brisbane, with Dr Laura Rodriguez Castro (Griffith) and Sam Trayhurn (WSU).  Information about the workshop and copies of the zine can be found here.

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14 August: Deborah gave an invited seminar presentation on her digital health research for the School of Public Health & Community Medicine, UNSW Sydney.

14 August: Deborah gave an invited lecture and a workshop, both on using social theory in a thesis, for the Arts & Social Sciences HDR student conference, UNSW Sydney.

19 August: Deborah gave an invited presentation to the UNSW Sydney Pioneers alumni association about her research on digital health.

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5 September: Clare gave a presentation on her chapter (co-authored with Miranda Bruce) about intimacies and the impersonal in ‘Black Mirror’, published in the edited volume Social Beings, Future Belongings (Routledge) at the book launch, ANU, Canberra. Her presentation and others at the launch can be viewed here.

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9 September: Ashleigh ran a zine-making workshop at the Vitalities Lab on the theme of ‘algorithmic micropolitics’. A blog post about the workshop and the zine itself that was collaboratively made by participants can be found here.

10 September: Deborah gave an invited presentation at the ‘Bioethics Colloquium’, convened by UNSW and the South East Sydney Local Health District Clinical Ethics Service

Call for submissions: So Fi Zine

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Ashleigh has launched the call for submissions for So Fi Zine edition #6 – So Fi Zine is a sociological fiction zine for arts-based research, creative sociology, and art inspired by social science. The zine publishes short stories, poetry, photography, photo essays, cartoons, and other creative works. Edition #6 will be published in November 2019 and is inspired by Deborah Lupton’s digital, creative, more-than-human and future oriented research. Pieces are invited that creatively explore sociological futures: bodies, spaces, disciplines and things. Submission info and previous edition of the zine can be found here.

Media appearances

  • Deborah wrote an article for The Conversation on portrayals of heart disease in the popular media. She did follow-up interviews on ABC Sydney, Melbourne and Far South Coast radio
  • Deborah’s research on people’s use of digital health was quoted in an ABC Life online article about health apps

Vitalities Lab Newsletter Number 4

VITALITIES LAB NEWSLETTER

Number 4, 2 August 2019

The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Further details here.

New Lab members

In July, the Vitalities Lab welcomed two new postdoctoral fellows: Dr Ashleigh Watson (left) and Dr Clare Southerton.

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Ashleigh will be working on a new ARC Discovery Project ‘Living with Personal Data: Australians’ Understandings and Practices’ with Deborah and Mike Michael, University of Exeter. This project now has its own website, which can be found here. It will be regularly updated with news about the project findings, the methods we are experimenting with and lists of readings we are engaging with.

New publications

  • Lupton, D. (2019) Australian women’s use of health and fitness apps and wearable devices: a feminist new materialism analysis. Feminist Media Studies, online first. doi:10.1080/14680777.2019.1637916
  • Fitzpatrick, K., Leahy, D., Webber, M., Gilbert, J., Lupton, D. and Aggleton, P. (2019) Critical health education studies: reflections on a new conference and this themed symposium. Health Education Journal, online first. org/10.1177/0017896919860882

New grant

Deborah is one of an international team of researchers who has been awarded a network support grant by the Swedish  Foundation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, led by Martin Berg at Malmo University, Sweden. The network will convene activities related to the topic of ‘Re-humanising automated decision making’. Further details are here.

Presentations/workshops

Ashleigh ran a creative methods workshop on Affect, Knowledge and Embodiment at Griffith University, Brisbane, 19 July.  Details of the workshop and the zine created there can be viewed and downloaded here.

Ashleigh will be leading another zine making workshop at the Vitalities Lab on the topic of algorithmic identities in September. She will also be contributing to a TASA workshop on Creativity and Methodological Innovation in the Sociology of Familial and Intimate Relationships to be held 29 November: details are here.

Media appearances

Deborah was quoted in article in Bustle magazine on digital technology designed for women: https://www.bustle.com/p/is-the-rise-of-femtech-a-good-thing-for-women-heres-what-the-experts-think-17993009

Deborah did an interview for ABC Radio Gold Coast about her research on health and fitness apps and wearable devices (9 July)

Upcoming events

Deborah is an invited speaker at the TASA Health Day event on Data, Technology and Sociology in the Age of Digital Health: details are here

Vitalities Lab Newsletter Number 3

VITALITIES LAB NEWSLETTER

Number 3, 25 June 2019

The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Further details here.

New Publications

  1. Lupton, D. (2019) ‘I’d like to think you could trust the government, but I don’t really think we can’: Australian women’s attitudes to and experiences of My Health Record. Digital Health, 5, online, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2055207619847017

Presentations

13 May: Deborah was the convenor and one of the panel speakers at the UNSW Grand Challenges Event ‘Shaping our digital future’. The event was chaired by Matthew Kearnes, UNSW Sydney, and the two other panel members were Sarah Pink, Monash University, and Amanda Third, Western Sydney University (pictured below, with Amanda seated between Deborah and Sarah).

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11 June 2019: Deborah gave a keynote at the Digitally Engaged Patient conference, University of Copenhagen

13 June 2019: Deborah gave a seminar presentation at King’s College, London

13 June 2019: Deborah gave a seminar presentation at the London School of Economics

14 June 2019: Deborah gave a keynote at the Surveillance in the 21st Century early career workshop, Royal Holloway University of London (the Founder’s Building at Royal Holloway is pictured above).

Workshops

In May, Deborah held two workshops at UNSW Sydney on using image cards for social research. Her reflections on the workshops and methods can be found here.

Media Appearances

Deborah was quoted about her research on My Health Record in for an article published in Government News: https://www.governmentnews.com.au/government-too-incompetent-for-digital-health/

Deborah was quoted about her research on fat politics in SBS ‘The Feed’ online: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/man-asked-to-move-from-emergency-exit-seat-claims-he-was-fat-shamed

Deborah was quoted in an article on fitness trackers in the New Zealand Listener news and current affairs magazine (8 June edition)

Other News

Deborah published a short document collecting together six of her popular blog posts providing tips and advice for successful academic research. The PDF can be accessed here.

With co-editor Zeena Feldman, Deborah completed work on their edited volume Digital Food Cultures for Routledge’s Critical Food Studies book series. The book is now in production and will be published in early 2020.

Vitalities Lab Newsletter Number 2

VITALITIES LAB NEWSLETTER

Number 2, 29 April 2019

The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Further details here.

New Publications

Presentations

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Deborah speaking at the CSRH seminar series
  • Deborah Lupton: ‘The internet both reassures and terrifies’: using the story completion method for health research. Presentation for the Centre for Social Research in Health Seminar Series, 2 April 2019
  • Deborah Lupton: ‘”Smart” health promotion: a perspective from digital sociology’. Invited presentation at a sub-plenary on smart health promotion, International Union for Health Promotion and Education World Conference, Rotorua, New Zealand, 10 April 2019
  • Deborah Lupton: ‘The more-than-human worlds of self-tracking for health and fitness’. Keynote at the World Congress of the Sociology of Sport, Dunedin, New Zealand, 24 April 2019
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The campus at the University of Dunedin, where Deborah gave a keynote

Upcoming events

  • 6 May: Deborah will be holding a  Vitalities Lab in-house pop-up methods workshop using the ‘New Metaphors’ inspiration cards
  • 7 May: Deborah is presenting a workshop on ‘Increasing your academic visibility’. Registration is free and open to all. Further details here.
  • 13 May: Deborah is the convenor and one of the panel speakers at the UNSW Grand Challenges Event ‘Shaping our digital future’. Registration is free and open to all. Further details here.

Opportunities

  • The Vitalities Lab has a doctoral research stipend worth $30,000 annually for four years for a domestic candidate who meets UNSW Sydney requirements for doctoral admission and wishes to pursue a project related to the Lab’s research directions. Contact Deborah Lupton (d.lupton@unsw.edu.au for further details).
  • Research practicums are also available for international doctoral students who are pursuing their studies at a university outside Australia to spend a period of time as a visiting researcher at the Vitalities Lab under Deborah Lupton’s supervision. Tuition fees apply. Further details are available here.