“With one foot planted in theoretical sources and the other in the results obtained from empirical research into the practice of technology and [older people], the area of [assistive] technology and [older people] could in all likelihood contribute important and groundbreaking knowledge.” (Östlund, 2004: 59)
The ‘problem’ of an ageing population has been one of the major talking points over recent years and is often described using terms such as ‘time bombs’ and ‘tsunamis’. In addition, the discourse around the ageing population has been associated with the notion that health and social care services are having to do more with less. One means of limiting the ‘burden’ (that is often attributed to older people) on health and social care services has been to invest in assistive technologies such as telecare systems at a national level. (This has led to some criticism with regards to technological determinism and the polarisation of debate, which can be explored here.)
Telecare systems typically consist of a base unit that plugs in to a telephone line and a personal alarm that, when activated, connects a user to a call monitoring centre. In most instances, telecare systems aim to support older people who have fallen or who require additional support to help them remain living at home in later life. However, despite efforts to establish both the clinical and cost effectiveness of telecare systems (see, for example, this resource) there has been little research that has investigated the perspective of users of the assistive technology.
Domestication as a theoretical perspective
Domestication theory, which was established in the early 1990s to explore the process of information and communications technologies (ICTs) entering people’s households and impacting on their everyday lives, is one way of presenting the user’s perspective. (For a recent summary of domestication theory, see this resource.) While there are numerous other ways of approaching this issue, such as social constructionist, feminist or semiotic approaches, domestication theory situates the user at the centre of technological change processes. (For further exploration of the different approaches to users, see this resource.) Domestication theory itself proposes that technological change occurs across four interrelated stages:
- Appropriation: the point at which an ICT leaves the world of the commodity and is taken possession of and ‘owned’ by users.
- Objectification: the display of an ICT within the household, which can reveal the norms and principles of the household’s sense of itself and its place in society.
- Incorporation: the integration of an ICT into the temporal dimensions of the household, which includes any negotiations that surround sharing and use.
- Conversion: the sharing of an ICT outside of the household, which can include claims of status when used in conversation with others.
Currently, it is unknown as to how and whether these four interrelated processes of domestication are applicable to the study of telecare systems. The aim of my thesis is therefore:
- To establish and update domestication theory from a theoretical standpoint, with a particular focus on an ICT designed to support health and social care services
- To present new empirical findings that emerge through the application of domestication theory to the use of telecare systems by older people.
In addition, my thesis will dive further into the historical roots of domestication theory to establish how ICTs are ‘socially shaped’ in their design and production, and so confront users not as neutral objects but as technologies that aim to meet social and political ends. For more information, please view my presentations on SlideShare or contact me via Twitter.
Mark Hawker is a third-year PhD Student in the Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield. His departmental website can be found here.