‘Critical Data Studies’ – four key questions

The field of Critical Data Studies is growing in profile as increasing numbers of scholars attempt to make social sense of the rise of digital data tools and the seemingly pervasive ‘computational turn’ across contemporary society.

Building on previous outlines from the likes of Craig DaltonAndrew IliadisRob KitchenGina Neff and Graham Pickren, the recent book from Hintz et al. (2019) offers further clarification of the Critical Data Studies approach. The authors start with a compact (but complex) one-line definition:

Critical Data Studies seeks to identify how the epistemological and ontological implications of data collection and data-driven processes may (re)constitute both knowledge and subjectivity” (Hintz et al.2019, p.6)

These issues are then expanded through four questions that Hintz and colleagues see as being core concerns of Critical Data Studies:

  • How does data alter reality? Digital data is now a key factor in setting the conditions, parameters and expectations of everyday life. As Hintz et al. (2019, p.6) reason early in the book, digital data “transform reason and rationality”. This raises the need to explore the ontological implications of digital data – in short, the ways in which data now shapes how we know the world in which we live in. As Hintz et al. (2019, p.6) put it, digital data “shapes the reality it measures by staking out new terrains of objects, methods of knowing, and definitions of social life” (Hintz et al. 2019, p.6).
  • What are the values of data? Data science and the ‘computational’ mindset have long been argued to be distinct ways of understanding the world. In this sense, it is perhaps useful to approach the rise of data-driven society can be seen as ideological in nature – conveying specific sets of values, logics, interests and agendas. If so, what are these values? Does digital data inherently favour certain types of value and value system – for example, foregrounding the economic over the social, and/or favouring the individualised rather than the intimate and genuinely personal?
  • What shifts in power are associated with data? The capacity to ‘do’ data is becoming a key source of power in society. As such, what individuals and institutions are becoming (more) empowered by their jurisdiction over digital data? At the same time, to what extent can we say that data and data-driven processes are becoming “new power brokers” (Diakopolous 2013, p.2) in their own right? For example, while algorithms are authored and maintained by humans, they are increasingly left ‘alone’ to make and adjudicate decisions. In this sense, to what extent can we talk about algorithmic power and algorithmic governance?
  • What are the social/political consequences of our data-driven society? Underpinning all these concerns is the basic question of outcome – to put it bluntly, ‘So what?’. Exactly what is datafication leading to – e.g. what lines of reasoning and argumentation it is reinforcing over others? To what extent does the datafication of society constitute a radically different state of affairs, as compared to merely extenuating established power relations and the status quo?


These four questions all reflect an over-arching concern with data and power. In this sense, Critical Data Studies understandably tends to focus on the structural barriers that impinge on individuals’ capacity to benefit from digital data – barriers that can often be said to result from “the corporate ownership of data points” (Hintz et al. 2019, p.9), and generally disproportionate influence that ‘BigTech’ actors have over legislative and public debates around data use in society.

As a result, many Critical Data Studies scholars are ultimately concerned with questions of agency and empowerment – especially how unequal distributions of agency between: (i) individual ‘users’ and (ii) those who process the personal data of these individual users. Indeed, at one point in the book, Hintz proposes a new power dynamic between those individuals who provide personal data (data ‘have nots’) and those large internet companies and state who own, trade and control it (data ‘haves’).

All told, Hintz and colleagues portray Critical Data Studies as a hopeful enterprise – ultimately seeking people’s agentic engagement with digital data and the progressive social changes that might result. In this sense, Critical Data Studies aims to ensure “the informed and knowledgeable use of digital infrastructures” (Hintz et al. 2019, p.150), and develop ways in which digital data might be used as a means for “people enact[ing] themselves as subjects of power” (Hintz et al. 2019, p.30).  All told, these are all worthy starting points from which we can start considering the datafication of schools.