How do you sleep? – Discovering the Interdependence between Sleep, Knowledge, and Technology

In 1980, Hartmut Schulz, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry, observes a sleeping test subject via a monitor.

Scientific knowledge about sleep is anything but unequivocal. This ambiguity poses problems and uncertainties for sleep medicine and individuals in their everyday lives. How to examine how knowledge about sleep acquires legitimacy, validity, and ultimately certainty? Technological developments to measure sleep significantly contribute to our social understanding of sleep, such as in classifying sleep into intensity levels. But these technologies and their use raise several new questions. As our ethnographic, historical, and sociological approaches show, knowledge about sleep derives its validity precisely from the interactive negotiation between sleep medicine and laboratories, digital technologies, and individuals. Sleep is not only a biological fact but social by nature.

Die wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnisse über den Schlaf sind alles andere als eindeutig. Diese Zweideutigkeit stellt die Schlafmedizin und den Einzelnen in seinem Alltag vor Probleme und Unsicherheiten. Wie lässt sich untersuchen, wie das Wissen über den Schlaf Legitimität, Gültigkeit und letztlich Gewissheit erlangt? Technologische Entwicklungen zur Messung des Schlafs tragen wesentlich zu unserem gesellschaftlichen Verständnis des Schlafs bei, etwa bei der Einteilung des Schlafs in Intensitätsstufen. Diese Technologien und ihre Anwendung werfen jedoch mehrere neue Fragen auf. Wie unsere ethnografischen, historischen und soziologischen Ansätze zeigen, bezieht das Wissen über den Schlaf seine Gültigkeit gerade aus der interaktiven Aushandlung zwischen Schlafmedizin und Labors, digitalen Technologien und Individuen. Schlaf ist nicht nur eine biologische Tatsache, sondern von Natur aus sozial.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2023.68

The Study of Sleep

For a long time, sleeping was seen as merely a biological necessity. However, in the beginning of the 20th century at the latest, sleep lost its self-evidence. The availability of electric light, the pulsating nightlife of the big cities, factories whose assembly lines did not stop even at night – all this made sleep an object of social concern. Many approaches followed to “objectively” measure sleep, exploring the flexibility of its rhythm and proposing ideas to optimize it. The rise of sleep laboratories as the most important places for the science of sleep paved the way for the study of sleep as a biological function rather than a social fact. The scientification of sleep was closely related to technological achievements; for instance, the invention of electroencephalography (EEG) was a crucial breakthrough in understanding sleep and sleep patterns. Interestingly, the peculiarities of sleep in EEG were discovered coincidentally, as people fell asleep during the long and monotonous process of attaching all electrodes to the head. Researchers observed that brainwaves looked different when a person was asleep rather than awake. Along with other coincidences that can be regarded as scientific serendipity, it ultimately led to a renewed medical discussion about sleep and sleep-related disorders. Sleep was now finally regarded as a bodily process, written directly from the “pencil of nature” onto the unrolling paper of the EEG – seemingly without any human intervention.

However, the success of sleep research also led to an opposite development. As the interest in sleep increased, other disciplines, including sociology and history, developed a strong interest in this supposedly purely biological phenomenon. These disciplines have argued – especially in the last two decades – that sleep norms and scientific concepts of sleep are always socially, culturally, and historically shaped, though sleep science claims to simply discover seemingly objective and therefore biological “truths.” In history and sociology, it is additionally argued that sleep science and technology played a crucial role in producing the social meaning of sleep and granting validity to certain styles of “sleep knowledge” in the current “knowledge society.” In the social sciences and humanities, researchers began to investigate contemporary and historical sleep laboratories to combine the knowledge production in those medical settings with the current trend of personal sleep tracking via technological gadgets such as smartwatches or similar devices. Sociological and historical approaches to sleep research and medicine aim to challenge and critique common notions and practices rather than provide guidelines for everyday use. By studying sleep, we are attempting to better understand the limits of scientific knowledge and the power structures of modern society. Ultimately, understanding the uncertainties of sleep can help individuals to better navigate the challenges of everyday life.

Uncertainties about Sleep

If nothing else, these devices have blurred the boundaries between sleep laboratories and society; it has become even more questionable how knowledge on sleep and sleep-related disorders is (re-)produced and gains legitimatization as well as validation. To discuss these ideas further, we collaborated with several international researchers on different aspects of sleep knowledge and technology. We created a special issue for the journal Historical Social Research1 to investigate which kinds of sleep knowledge are capable of producing certainty and how these bodies of knowledge circulate beyond the boundaries of the laboratory and enter everyday life. We decided to divide the final contributions into three groups: (1) two different approaches to ethnographic studies of the contemporary sleep laboratory with interest in the transformations that take place in the medical sleep laboratory, (2) three contextualizing studies focusing on different historical situations, social spaces, and climatic areas to reveal the impact of social norms on scientific and popular notions of sleep, and (3) four studies on the diffusion, use, and impact of contemporary digital sleep technologies.

Sleep – A Malleable Phenomenon

Not only those articles but additionally several other recent studies2 have shown an increasing awareness of the importance of quality sleep and the desire to improve it as a means of coping with the challenges of contemporary society. Knowledge and technology are thereby viewed as solutions for a good night’s sleep and to help individuals adapt to societal norms and work requirements. However, the idea of having control over sleep may not necessarily lead to more rational or healthier sleep practices. Scientific knowledge rarely provides unambiguous solutions, and more knowledge can often produce more uncertainty. Furthermore, multiple definitions of “normal” sleep are derived and based on historical, geographical, and social contexts.

In conclusion, the study of sleep has come a long way since its inception. The rise of sleep laboratories and digital sleep tracking technologies has further moved the study of sleep into the public sphere. While this increased focus on sleep has brought to light its importance, it has also raised important questions about the production of sleep knowledge, its validity, and the impact of technology on the social meaning of sleep.

More information on the project “Sleep Knowledge. On the production of knowledge in sleep laboratories and via self-tracking” can be found here:


  1. HSR 48 (2023) 2, Special Issue “Sleep, Knowledge, Technology. Studies of the Sleep Lab, Sleep Tracking and Beyond” (ed. Hannah Ahlheim, Dariuš Zifonun & Nicole Zillien).
  2. For Instance: Meadows, Robert, Sarah Nettleton, Christine Hine, und Jason Ellis. 2021. Counting sleep? Critical reflections on a UK national sleep strategy. Critical Public Health 31: 494–499; Ahlheim, Hannah. 2018. Der Traum vom Schlaf im 20. Jahrhundert. Wissen, Optimierungsphantasien und Widerständigkeit. Göttingen; Williams, Simon J., Catherine Coveney, und Robert Meadows. 2015. ‘M-apping’ sleep? Trends and transformations in the digital age. Sociology of Health & Illness 37: 1039–1054; Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J. 2012. The slumbering masses: sleep, medicine, and modern American life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Kroker, Kenton. 2007. The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research.

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