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METHODS

 

Our team utilized qualitative, STS research methods in our research of women’s health and industry practices. The methodology utilized a number of methods of data collection (ethnographic observations, survey results, coded interview transcripts), which were translated into thick descriptions and situational maps. We moved through these steps in a systematic, but simultaneous manner; we analyzed our findings as we collected them, following a general line of inquiry about the topics, but making adjustments to our initial research question as we moved through the research period. This aligns with John Law (2015)’s assertions in his piece “STS as Method” and Charmaz (2006)’s chapter about situational analysis and mapping.

The lens we use to observe our research topic, largely relies on the foundations that appeared in John Law’s “STS as a Method ''. John Law’s work focuses on seeing Science and Technology studies as method in and of itself. He sees “practices – scientific and social scientific – [as] methods for formatting society (Law, 2015, p.2). This view situates case study as essential to “doing” theory work and understanding co-construction. Our work focuses on the relationship between brands, female customers, and the medical industrial complex as a large case study to examine science and technology as interrelated bodies which build societies and are influenced by them. The work is supported by smaller case study analyses that lend specific insight into the tools and impacts which co-create the wellness space in the modern world. In examining these small cases we can begin to make sense of the values at stake amongst the different actors in the environment gaining deeper insight into how  “social interests” shape space and science (Law, 2015, p.4).  Social wellness trends are shaping digital health and wellness brands, which are in turn shaping the relationship target consumers, in this case primarily young women, have with their individual wellness. This is a representation of performative technoscience practices. Our research question encourages us to identify how “technoscience practices are shaped by but also shape the social” in terms of media and women’s health.

 

Our Methodology alleged with Charmaz’s grounded theory, emphasizing the flexible and comparative analysis which will allow us to draw conclusions about our topic. Specific utilizations of the theory are embedded in our project through many different steps. There was “simultaneous involvement in data collection and analysis” (Charmaz, p.5) in the ways we developed ideas, shifted questions, and expanded our scope as the interview process proceeded. Memo writing assisted in celebrating our categories and linking them together while exposing holes and areas for expansion. Lastly, harnessing Charmaz’s coding techniques brought structure to a dynamic topic by encouraging the development of ideas off of  “codes and categories from data, not from preconceived logically deduced hypotheses  (Charmaz, p.5)” As we navigated the implementation of grounded theory, we held tightly to Hertz mention that perception is deceiving and how 'deeply rooted assumptions and ideological preferences can challenge even the most ardent efforts at openness' (Geertz, 1973, p. 474).” The outcome of this consideration came in the form of thoughtful consideration surrounding STS concepts which drove many of our perspectives.  

 


AUDIENCE AND CONTEXT 

The audience we wanted to tap into through this research were initially the broad category of digital (health and) wellness community members; this category would include everyone that participated in any space where digital wellness communities exist: blogs, influencer profiles on social media, online wellness stores and brands, and even doctor’s offices. We defined “wellness community” as a place where people gather to construct meaning in and around health and wellness. Due to the current conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, all research (including observations, survey distribution, and interviews) was conducted virtually. This situation also led us to prioritize our focus on digital wellness communities and the current practices of digital communication within these communities (rather than focus on in-person or other forms of communication). 

 

But as we began tracing the different individuals and spaces in which these digital communities existed, we realized the category was too broad to capture within the duration of this research.

 

We instead decided to focus mainly on the perspectives of 18-30 year old women, mainly female college students. In our discovery, we interviewed 4 women within this category, as well as one woman over the age of 45. We decided on narrowing this audience as a result of the logistical constraints of the research as well as knowledge about the marketing and targeting efforts of these brands.

Dried Oranges
Dried Oranges
Apricots

OBSERVATIONS AND SURVEY

We observed digital wellness communities; the sites observed were the informational or about page of the website, the social media accounts and any blogs run by the brand, comments made by consumers, and at least one product or service page. Any additional interesting pages were included based on the researchers’ discretion. The brands we observed fit within the scope of a “new wave/new age” health and wellness culture. They fit within the scope of being an “anti-diet,” or “non-tradition” wellness with a focus of branding their services and products as “science-based” and or “user centered.” The brands were all targeted at the Millennial and Gen-Z generations meaning that their social pages and branding are a central part of their brand identity. Each embodied a sense of post-2000’s fluidity of health where the message was no longer centered around weight loss but rather more preoccupied with the aesthetics of the body and the brand. The brands observed were: Outdoor Voices, Moon Juice, Seed, and Care/of. The observations were conducted virtually and were collected through a shared Google Form. This preliminary observation allowed us to create a thick description to contextualize the digital wellness communities as we move towards interviews.The questions listed within the form revolved around the topics and tasks listed below:

  • Capturing Logos

  • Capturing Taglines (Do they have a key phrase? Name of community/what do they call their followers?)

  • Product packaging (Image of product)

  • Product descriptions

  • Price Range (of product)

  • Website UX/UI (How easy is it to use? What does it look like? Functionalities? Image of site.)

  • Mentions of Gender (Gendered language, usage of models for product, etc.) 

  • Mentions of Science (Interactions with scientists and engineers, technical language)

  • Definitions of Health/Wellness 

  • A summary of diversity (size, race, ability, etc.) across their pages

  • DEI Statements

  • Sustainability Statements

  • Brand Founder (and current team demographics)

  • The different ways they market themselves (Ads, Commercials, Social Media)

SURVEY QUESTION: What wellness products do you use in your daily life?

Lululemon

Super Goop Glow Screen

Tom’s of Main

Care.of

Mirror

Puriya

Dermalogica

Jan Mrini

Korean Face Wash/Skin Product

Innisfree

Garnier Facial Toner

Oil Diffuser

Face Masks

Moisturizer

Probiotics

Multivitamins

Pumpkin Seed Oil

Hemp Seed Oil

Ginger

Fiber Choice Gummies

Azo Probiotics

The Ordinary Face Serums

CereVe

Bala Bangles

Yoga clothes

Rodan and Fields Face Wash

Salicylic acid toner

Moisturizer

Olaplex hair products

Moon teeth products

None

Peloton

Regular acupuncture

Andes Mints

Face wash, hair care, skin care (basic brands, nothing crazy)

None

ModiBodi

None

Probiotics Supplements

Face Serums

Neutrogena

Eco Friendly and reusable products 

Stationary Bike

Neutrogena Moisturizers

Vitamin D Capsules

Neutrogena

Dove

Redkin

Bliss

Trader Joe's skincare

Lush

Nyx cosmetics

Jade Yoga mat

True Botanicals

Coola sunscreen

Lululemon

Tata Harper

Province & Apothecary

Eminence

Aveda

Lululemon

None

Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen

Natrol Biotin

NatureMade Vitamin E

Curology

None

Facial

Wearing thrifted/upcycled clothes

The Ordinary BHA+AHA

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser and Moisturizer

Protein bars, Yerba Mate, and more

Facial

The Ordinary

Cetaphil for skincare

Costco vitamins

Aveeno

Prior to conducting interviews, a short interview interest form/survey was distributed to a number of closed channels (2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024 Cal Poly Student Facebook Groups)?; family and friends of the student researchers). We aimed to distribute this survey to collect interested people within the “new wave/new age” women’s health and wellness community to participate in our interview (recruitment). This survey was 3 sections long: Demographic Information, Perceptions and Behaviors, and Conclusion (Interview Sign-Up). The interest form only collected information from consenting adults over the age of 18 and no identifying information from the forms will be publicly shared during or after this research period. We collected 29 responses during the two-week period the survey was open. 27 of 29 respondents (93.1%) were Cal Poly students, and 29 of 29 respondents (100%) identified as cis-female. 21 of 29 respondents (72.4%) of respondents described themselves as being “into'' health and wellness; 27 of 29 respondents (93.1%) described themselves as being knowledgeable about women’s health.  Many more individuals had heard about the brands (Moon Juice, Seed, Outdoor Voices, Care/of) than have purchased from the brands; 22 of 29 respondents (75.9%) stated they had not purchased a product from these brands, but only 12 of 29 respondents (41.4%) states they had never heard of these brands. We received a total of 9 respondents interested in participating in a follow-up interview.

INTERVIEW

From the survey, we discovered 9 respondents interested in participating in a follow-up interview, alongside a handful of personal contacts. We ended up conducting interviews with 4 women over the age of 18. Each interview lasted approximated an hour, and inquired about our interviewee's existing knowledge and view on health, wellness, social media, and women's health industry brands through three prompts:

1. Definition of Topics

2. Personal Behaviors

3. Community Engagement

More about our interview findings can be found in CASE STUDY.

Colorful Notebooks

INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

Prompt 1: Definition of Topics

  1. What do you think of when you think of “health and wellness” ‘

  2. How do you define “health and wellness”

    1. How do you define health?

    2. How do you define wellness?

  3. Do you consider yourself to be knowledgeable on women's health?

    1. What aspects of health would you describe as “women’s health”?

    2. How have you felt treated in traditional medical settings?

  4. How, if at all, have your thoughts and feelings about women’s health changed in the last 5 years?

    1. Do any pivotal moments or experiences stand out to you as being particularly influential?

  5. How do you define "womanhood"?

 

Prompt 2: Personal Behaviors

  1. Do you consider yourself to be “into” health and wellness?

    1. How does it impact your day to day life?

  2. Tell me how you go about promoting health in your day to day life. What do you do?

  3. Do you consider yourself to be "pro-science"?

    1. What would you define as “pro-science” behavior?

    2. What would you define as “anti-science” behavior?

  4. Do you find that there are any contradictions between your views of science and the ways you promote/care for your own health?

  5. In what ways to [these wellness products that they’ll list in the survey] help you in your daily life?

    1. How do you incorporate these products into your day to day routine?

    2. Provide a brief description of the main benefits to these wellness products in your daily life.

    3. What benefits do you find in taking dietary supplements?

  6. How did you hear about these products?

    1. What were your first impressions of these products? What were your first impressions of the brands: Moon Juice, Outdoor Voices, Care/Of, Seed?

    2. After hearing about them, what led you to go forward with purchasing this product?

    3. Would you recommend it to family or friends? Why?

 

Prompt 3: Community Engagement

  1. Do you consider yourself a member of a health and wellness community (at the gym, group chat, social media)?

    1. What sites do engage with to be a part of these communities (podcasts, Discord chats, social media threads, blogs, etc.)

  2. How would you define your relationship with exercise?

    1. Do you exercise?

    2. How often/consistently do you exercise?

  3. How would you define your relationship to healthy eating?

    1. What do you consider to be “healthy foods”?

    2. How often/consistently do you eat “healthy food” (according to your definition of healthy food?)

  4. Is there anyone you look to or consider influential in regards to health and wellness?

  5. How has technology and social media played a role in your interest in health and wellness?

Wrap-Up

Do you have any questions for us about our work? Is there anything you wish we would have asked you or you would like to share about your experience?

Wild Mushrooms

GENERAL ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION

 

ANALYSIS​

In an attempt to examine the ways consumers are impacted by the women's wellness industry, our team relied on ethnographic observations and interviews for initial insights, engaged in further research, and went on to generate findings by relying on memo literature, situational mapping, and Goodnight’s spheres of argumentation. 

Our initial ethnographic observations lead to thick descriptions of four specific digital wellness communities. This process allowed us to deeply examine complexities (Geertz, 1973) within modern trends of the  women’s wellness industry, providing context for our path to explore consumer impact. From here, we conducted a survey sent out to examine the perceptions and behaviors respondents have  towards health and wellness as it pertains to the brands from our thick descriptions. Respondents with “relevant experiences to shed light on (Charmaz, 2006, pg.25)” went on to take part in our intensive interview process. Open ended questions and detailed content fostered deep discussion topics that helped our team develop ideas and make connections. Following the 30 survey responses and 4 personal interviews, we constructed a situational map which brought clarity to overarching themes. The map shined light on a dynamic factor within the relationship consumers have with emerging wellness brands: Science. 

Choosing to deviate from our initial focus which centered around the relationship emerging wellness brands have with media and the impacts that relationship has on consumers, we harnessed grounded theory techniques to investigate the connections between science and emerging brands. In order to evaluate the attitudes about science that the brands hold in comparison to the behaviors around science that the brands promote, we initially ordered our brands from most “pro-science” to “anti-science”: (Most to Least) Seed, Care/of, Outdoor Voices, Moon Juice. (As we developed this project, we realized the inaccurate representation the phrases "pro-" and "anti-science" denoted; this is further elaborated below in LIMITATIONS AND CONCLUDING THOUGHTS.

There was a clear distinction behind the brands which are loosely connected to science, and those who strongly adhere to it. There were also discrepancies within brand ideals and practices. Our final examination sought to understand the arguments made by the brands. Using Goodnight’s Sphere’s of Argumentation, the team broke each brand's arguments into technical (science based and objective health practices) and personal (holistic and intuitive health).

DISCUSSION

From our research into digital wellness communities and the underlying messaging around gender, wealth, and aesthetics. Through our investigation into this space, all our members came in with distinct experiences, attitudes, and perspectives about these brands and topics; there were things we liked about each brand and also vehemently disliked. From observing the sites more deeply and interacting with the perspectives of community members, we gained a deeper understanding of the people interacting with the brands, products, and community and the different motivations that attract and detract them from various aspects of the brands.

 

We rarely found that people were all into every value or every brand that exists within the broad digital wellness community, but that brands that did uphold a person’s values were seen as more favorable, useful, or interesting. These main values and personal concerns were around: science and health expertise and knowledge, wealth, social media and digital technology, personal anecdotes, aesthetics/sense of “feeling good.”

LIMITATIONS AND CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

As this research was conducted during the ten week period of ISLA 456, much work is still to be done in understanding the relationships between “new-age” health and wellness practices, gender, and marketing/industry practices. For future research, it would be interesting to do a more thorough capture of community stories and perspectives; we were only able to capture a small number of interviews and survey results. 

 

One of our major findings from this investigation that differed from our initial conjectures about digital wellness communities was that we assumed them to be more or less categorizable (if not a monolith of characters that would be drawn to these products). In that assumption, we fell into the same marketing mindset as the brands themselves, that there were clear ideal customer profiles to discover. The people who buy into these brands have varying levels of interest in the community and different personal values and concerns draw them to look for alternative wellness options; this does not mean they are somehow “anti-science” (language that we previously used), but that there were certain motivating personal concerns that caused them to select the alternative options they cared to engage with (Lynch, 2020). 

 

In this age of digital marketing and mass media, it is crucial to acknowledge the complex systems in which health and wellness are only a factor. Critically analyzing our purchasing habits and brand loyalties is not something we may always find ourselves prioritizing in each of our busy lives (and even more complicated to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic). Rather, these products, brands, and services appeal to our personal concerns about our health and wellness as busy, “modern” individuals ― promising easier, more transparent, and more liberating solutions through advanced scientific and technological developments (vitamins and supplements, subscription deliveries, digital communities). But these messages of personalized, market-ready self-care and wellness undermine the inherently connected nature of our individual lives (health, wellness, and all) with each others’ lives. By moving technical arguments of health and science into the personal sphere, emphasizing individual agency and personal experiences, it allows individuals to uncritically prioritize their individual and, rightfully, subjective views of how to “feel good.”

 

Our work is limited, but taps into complicated, ongoing discussions about personalized health and wellness using the broader lens of STS to analyze the rich connections between individual values and concerns, technology and science, and brand and industry ― just a few parts of what constitutes digital wellness communities.

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