Do you end at your skin? This philosophical head-scratcher of a question may hold insights for our understanding of health and is inspiring new avenues of physical activity research.
Physical inactivity has reached pandemic proportions and is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Millions in public funds are spent every year on interventions to get more people more active. However, the Lancet recently reported that, despite our best efforts, “Since 2001, there has been no improvement in global levels of physical activity.” Facing such limited progress, some researchers are examining physical activity as more than just a behaviour that people do (or don’t do).
Getting people to choose healthier lifestyles and change unhealthy behaviour is a major public health focus. Despite strong evidence for social determinants of health, most behaviour change is managed and measured at the individual level. Physical activity intervention promotes individual responsibility and personal body management. The idea is that a responsible citizen will willingly make choices for personal and social good, and an effective intervention will assist in this by producing permanent changes in behaviour. But when this doesn’t work, which is often, the individual is at fault and certain persons or bodies become excluded.
To understand this problem differently, scholars have questioned the inherent separateness such individualism requires. In her Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway asked, “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” This question unsettles our normal ideas of boundedness and asks us to consider the possibility that, no, we may not end at our skin. This possibility has a name, and it’s called immanence.
Though not its only name, immanence, at its simplest, is a term for continuous becoming. It’s an old idea stretching back to the ancient Greeks, but its threads can be traced to the present day not only in philosophy, but also in sciences like biology and physics. Immanence is a radically relational perspective of reality. It’s not an easy idea to grasp, but Deleuze and Guattari explain it something like this… All existence can be understood as an undifferentiated plane of forces and materials known only by its connections. If this sounds more like science fiction, that is because, particularly in the West, we are conditioned to a world made up of definitive objects that exist apart from the subject that seeks to know them. What immanence offers – that this other perspective does not – is a way of studying and experimenting the ‘not-yet.’
As a researcher interested in how behaviour changes, concepts like immanence provide an expanded understanding of what physical activity is and the function of intervention in affecting it. For example, I examined how an app-based intervention designed to encourage physical activity in parents and young children actually generated the target behaviour (Beggan, 2022). The analysis demonstrated that, rather than causing change in individuals by influencing specific variables, the intervention participated with its users to generate various forms that became physical activity. Interestingly, these forms continued to change and become; some dissipating altogether while others gained further connections forming new and different kinds of physical activity.
So, the next time you pull on your trainers to go for a walk, notice the connections. Are you becoming physically active through these shoes? How do they participate in where you will go, with whom, for how long, etc.? How does this touching of foot to shoe to ground join to the next thing and the next? I agree with Barad (2012) I don’t think we do end at our skin. We are always becoming, always touching the virtual at the edge of the not-yet.