Comment Mewes: “Temporalities of sleep: Sleep, shift work and absence of a ‘natural’ sleep cycle”

Comment by Ruth

We all have to do it. Many of us yearn for it: Sleep is critical to all of our lives, yet it gets little attention from social sciences. Julie Mewes delightful talk on “Temporalities of sleep: Sleep, shift work and absence of a ‘natural’ sleep cycle” on January 28th 2021, addressed sleeping strategies and tools, following this semester’s theme of “data & experimentalism”. 

Mainly interested in sociomaterialities and devices of sleep, Julie chose a research field with extreme sleeping conditions: Focussing on healthcare professionals in shift work above the polar cycle poses a challenging – but even more interesting – setting for sleep cycles in multiple ways. First, the northern location holds its own implications for sleep, as natural light above the polar cycle doesn’t support a “natural” day-night cycle during most of the year. Second, the hospital’s work environment with rotating shifts messes up any regularity of sleep cycles. Third, healthcare professionals hold a double role between medical expertise and self-care, often creating a gap between health advice given to patients and health advice practised. 

Julie argued that social sciences showed hardly any interest in bodies in their dormant state for a long time, considering it a private matter. In the 2nd half of the 20th century, medical advice on improving sleep started, focusing on the “sleep of others”. Subsequently, with a shift towards individual responsibility of body and self, the “sleep of ourselves” increasingly conceptualized sleep as something to optimize and improve, e.g. with sleep tracking apps. Julie argued that even more recent developments try to support sleep everywhere at any time. This “sleep of anytime” further shifts responsibility for good sleep from individuals to tools and devices that are meant to organize and enhance sleep.

Following the semester’s theme, Julie discussed her experimental way of ethnographically approaching the intimate settings of sleep. Using “interviews to the double” (Nicolini 2009,2017), she reconstructed sleep practices to make up for the problem that observing people during their sleep is hardly possible for ethnographers. Closing the gap between practices and talking about practices “interviews to the double” try to re-enact the everyday practices surrounding sleep, recreating as many details as possible. Following this method, Julie represented reconstructed field notes, narrating the sleeping routines of interviewees. This translation vividly re-synchronizes and re-embeds the narratives of practice into daily life, to give us insight into intimate sleep routines. E.g. we heard about Nina, who doesn’t try to follow a sleeping rhythm but sleeps in two bouts during the day after a shift, using tools and devices like light-hearted TV-shows to calm down after a shift, or audio-books to fall asleep. 

Because healthcare workers in arctic regions in Norway have to become experts in the “sleep of anytime” within their extreme work-life-sleep-balance, Julie especially focused on the means and devices people use to manage their sleep cycles and patterns. These social and material “Zeitgeber”-tools enable a systematization of sleep cycles, giving time or rhythms to support sleep anytime and everywhere. Anne, another interviewee, uses artificial lights and blinds or curtains and sleeping masks to imitate a light cycle to “fool her brain and body” into a regular sleeping rhythm. Mia tries to get at least six to seven hours of sleep, coordinating it also to be able to spend time with friends and family with regular working hours, stressing the – often overlooked – social aspects of sleep. The sleep devices used include a wide range of means, from looking out of a window to more high-tech devices like sleep trackers. They are part of different strategies developed individually to find good sleep. In the search for what it is, that creates a “sleepability” for people, Julie summed up, that good sleep doesn’t have to follow normative circumstances of a full night’s rest. It is the quality of sleep that matters most. More challenging conditions also lead to more managing efforts by individuals. These strategies are partially transferable to other settings, showing different ways to organize sleep when natural light or work cycles don’t support it. 

Discussing Julie’s experimental approach, we talked about the difficulty of studying subjects like sleeping habits ethnographically and how “interviews to the double” could be of service to ethnography in such fields. Translating narratives to reconstructed fieldnotes might be problematic in creating the illusion these situations were directly observed. Yet it enables Julie to analyze sleeping practices, that otherwise couldn’t be observed at all. Thus, it is an experimental way of writing about the data collected in the field, which utilizes storytelling to make the different sleep tangible and comprehensible strategies.