Social Theory & Health

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 125–139 | Cite as

The thing-power of the human-app health assemblage: thinking with vital materialism

  • Deborah LuptonEmail author
Original Article


Hundreds of thousands of apps are now available that have been designed to monitor, manage or improve users’ health. In this article, I draw on feminist new materialist perspectives, and particularly the vital materialism offered by Jane Bennett, to consider the affordances, relational connections, affective forces and agential capacities that contribute to the thing-power of the human-app health assemblage. The discussion is underpinned by the assumption that digital technologies such as health apps are part of a more-than-human world, in which they generate forces and capacities only with and through their associations and relations with the humans who create and use them—or in some cases, relinquish or resist their use. To demonstrate how this approach can be applied to the analysis of empirical material, I discuss the findings of several of my recent projects involving people talking about their use of health apps. Drawing on these materials, I show that the vibrancy of the thing-power of the human-app assemblage is a complex admixture of affective forces, personal biographies and life trajectories, human and nonhuman affordances and cultural imaginaries. All of these elements contribute to a greater or lesser degree to the agential capacities generated by this assemblage.


Digital health Feminist new materialism Vital materialism Mobile apps Embodiment Affect 



  1. Barad, K. 2003. Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs 28: 801–831.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bardini, T. 2014. Apps as ‘charming junkware’? In The imaginary app, ed. P.D. Miller and S. Matviyenko, 205–216. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bennett, J. 2001. The enchantment of modern life: Attachments, crossings, and ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bennett, J. 2004. The force of things: Steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32: 347–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bennett, J. 2005. The agency of assemblages and the North American blackout. Public Culture 17: 445–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bennett, J. 2009. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Berg, M. 2017. Making sense with sensors: Self-tracking and the temporalities of wellbeing. Digital Health. Scholar
  9. Braidotti, R. 2016. Posthuman critical theory. In Critical posthumanism and planetary futures, ed. D. Banerji and M. Paranjape, 13–32. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Braidotti, R. 2018. A theoretical framework for the critical posthumanities. Theory, Culture & Society. Scholar
  11. Crellin, R.J. 2017. Changing assemblages: vibrant matter in burial assemblages. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27: 111–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dennison, L., L. Morrison, G. Conway, et al. 2013. Opportunities and challenges for smartphone applications in supporting health behavior change: qualitative study. Journal of Medical Internet Research.
  13. Depper, A., and P.D. Howe. 2017. Are we fit yet? English adolescent girls’ experiences of health and fitness apps. Health Sociology Review 26: 98–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Didžiokaitė, G., P. Saukko, and C. Greiffenhagen. 2018. The mundane experience of everyday calorie trackers: Beyond the metaphor of Quantified Self. New Media & Society 20: 1470–1487.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fotopoulou, A., and K. O’Riordan. 2017. Training to self-care: fitness tracking, biopedagogy and the healthy consumer. Health Sociology Review 26: 54–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fox, N. 2017. Personal health technologies, micropolitics and resistance: A new materialist analysis. Health 21: 136–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fox, N.J., and P. Alldred. 2017. Sociology and the new materialism: Theory, research, action. London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Frissen, V., S. Lammes, M. de Lange, et al. 2015. Homo ludens 2.0: Play, media and identity. In Playful identities: The ludification of digital media cultures, ed. V. Frissen, S. Lammes, M. de Lange, et al., 9–50. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fullagar, S., E. Rich, J. Francombe-Webb, et al. 2017. Digital ecologies of youth mental health: apps, therapeutic publics and pedagogy as affective arrangements. Social Sciences.
  20. Goodyear, V.A., C. Kerner, and M. Quennerstedt. 2019. Young people’s uses of wearable healthy lifestyle technologies; surveillance, self-surveillance and resistance. Sport, Education and Society 24: 212–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gregson, N., H. Watkins, and M. Calestani. 2010. Inextinguishable fibres: Demolition and the vital materialisms of asbestos. Environment and Planning A 42: 1065–1083.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Haraway, D. 2015. Anthropocene, capitalocene, plantationocene, chthulucene: Making kin. Environmental Humanities 6: 159–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Jackson, A.Y., and L.A. Mazzei. 2012. Thinking with theory in qualitative research. New York: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
  25. Johnston, R. 2016. Australians only use most apps for two weeks, tops. Gizmodo.
  26. Kamel Boulos, M., and S. Yang. 2013. Exergames for health and fitness: the roles of GPS and geosocial apps. International Journal of Health Geographics
  27. Khan, G. 2009. Agency, nature and emergent properties: An interview with Jane Bennett. Contemporary Political Theory 8: 90–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lister, C., J.H. West, B. Cannon, et al. 2014. Just a fad? Gamification in health and fitness apps. JMIR Serious Games
  29. Lupton, D. 2014. Apps as artefacts: towards a critical perspective on mobile health and medical apps. Societies 4: 606–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lupton, D. 2015. Quantified sex: a critical analysis of sexual and reproductive self-tracking using apps. Culture, Health & Sexuality 17: 440–453.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lupton, D. 2016. The quantified self: A sociology of self-tracking. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  32. Lupton, D. 2017. Digital bodies. In Routledge handbook of physical cultural studies, ed. D. Andrews, M. Silk, and H. Thorpe, 200–208. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lupton, D. 2018a. ‘I just want it to be done, done, done!’ Food tracking apps, affects and agential capacities. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction.
  34. Lupton, D. 2018b. ‘Better understanding about what’s going on’: young Australians’ use of digital technologies for health and fitness. Sport, Education and Society. Scholar
  35. Lupton, D. 2019. Vitalities and visceralities: alternative body/food politics in digital media. In Alternative food politics: from the margins to the mainstream, eds. M. Phillipov, and K. Kirkwood, 151–168. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  36. Lupton, D., and A. Jutel. 2015. ‘It’s like having a physician in your pocket!’ A critical analysis of self-diagnosis smartphone apps. Social Science and Medicine 133: 128–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lupton, D., and S. Maslen. 2018. The more-than-human sensorium: sensory engagements with digital self-tracking technologies. The Senses and Society 13: 190–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lupton, D., and S. Maslen. 2019. How women use digital technologies for health: qualitative interview and focus group study. Journal of Medical Internet Research.
  39. Lupton, D., and G.M. Thomas. 2015. Playing pregnancy: the ludification and gamification of expectant motherhood in smartphone apps. M/C Journal.
  40. Maturo, A., L. Mori, and V. Moretti. 2016. An ambiguous health education: The quantified self and the medicalization of the mental sphere. Italian Journal of Sociology of Education.
  41. Maturo, A., and F. Setiffi. 2016. The gamification of risk: How health apps foster self-confidence and why this is not enough. Health, Risk & Society 17: 477–494.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Miller, P.D. 2014. Preface. In The Imaginary App, ed. P.D. Miller and S. Matviyenko. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Millington, B. 2014. Smartphone apps and the mobile privatization of health and fitness. Critical Studies in Media Communication 31: 479–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Morris, J.W., and E. Elkins. 2015. There’s a history for that: apps and mundane software as commodity. The Fibreculture Journal. Scholar
  45. Research2Guidance. 2017. mHealth App Economics 2017: Current status and future trends in mobile health. Berlin: Research2Guidance.Google Scholar
  46. Rose, D. 2014. Enchanted objects: Design, human desire, and the internet of things. New York: Scribner.Google Scholar
  47. Sherbine, K. 2018. Track Star + thing power: Be (com) ing in the literacy workshop. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. Scholar
  48. Thomas, G.M., and D. Lupton. 2016. Threats and thrills: pregnancy apps, risk and consumption. Health, Risk and Society 17: 495–509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Trnka, S.H. 2016. Digital care: Agency and temporality in young people’s use of health apps. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 2: 248–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Tucker, I., and L. Goodings. 2015. Managing stress through the Stress Free app: Practices of self-care in digitally mediated spaces. Digital Health. Scholar
  51. Watson, J., and J. Bennett. 2013. Eco-sensibilities: An interview with Jane Bennett. The Minnesota Review 2013: 147–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Williams, S.J., C. Coveney, and R. Meadows. 2015. ‘M-apping’ sleep? Trends and transformations in the digital age. Sociology of Health & Illness 37: 1039–1054.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Witkowski, E. 2018. Running With zombies: Capturing new worlds through movement and visibility practices With Zombies, Run! Games and Culture 13: 153–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Arts & Social SciencesUniversity of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations