Most contemporary social science accounts of digital data are located within what has become known as ‘Critical Data Studies’. As with most contemporary scholarship around the digital society, critical data studies is a messy, eclectic, interdisciplinary endeavour – perhaps best described as a loose ‘research theme’ rather than a tightly focused ‘research field’. Indeed, Dalton et al. (2016, p.1) modestly concede that it might be safest to treat critical data studies as little more than “three words cobbled together imperfectly signifying diverse sets of work around data’s recursive relationship to society”.
That said, critical data studies is a useful statement of intent to look beyond the depoliticised boosterism and hype that propelled discussions of ‘big data’ and ‘data science’ during the 2010s. As such, ‘critical data studies’ is term that draws together researchers from across the social sciences, humanities, legal and policy fields, arts and design. Uniting these different academic perspectives is the intention to “avoid the hubris of pseudo-positivism and technological determinism, in favour of the nuanced and contingent” (Dalton et al.2016, p.1).
There are perhaps three distinguishing foci within critical data studies that set it apart from previous sociologies of numbers and statistics.
- First is a declared interest in digital data – i.e. data that is digitally-generated and/or digitally-circulated. In the first instance, this involves the masses of data ‘traces’ generated through everyday uses of personal devices, software, systems and other technologies, alongside the data produced by technologies that are otherwise unseen (such as sensors, digital video cameras and other technological forms of monitoring). In addition, are data that might not have been initially generated through digital technologies yet are now quickly digitized and then processed, analysed, circulated and recombined in digital forms. The past decade has seen large increases in computer processing and storage capabilities, alongside advances in mass computational techniques. In this sense, the digitization of data (and its outcomes) is a primary focus of the recent turn toward critical data studies.
- More specifically, perhaps, is an understanding that this digital data is what Dalton et al. (2016, p.2) term “human subjects data”. In other words, this is digital data that is (at its heart) produced by people, and nearly always consists of information relating to people. Thus, in contrast to the idea that data is ‘naturally occurring’, critical data studies pays great attention to how data is artificially generated. It also pays specific attention to how this data is used to infer things about people. For example, even the data generated from remote heat sensors in a room can be used to infer information about the number of people in the room at any one time, or whether the janitor is regularly checking thermostat controls.
- Finally, critical data studies extends this idea of human subjects data into a concern with how data is used to exercise power over human subjects. In short, the guiding credo of critical data studies is that “data are a form of power” (Iliadis & Russo 2016, p.1). This leads us to pay close attention to ways in which data is used to “permeate and exert power on all manner of forms of life” (Neff et al. 2017, p.86) – not least the power structures that lie behind (and are advanced by) digital forms of data generation and processing. Thus critical data studies often pay close attention to the influence of digital data on contemporary governmentality and social organisation, as well as the ways in which data is used to make subjects. Also of significance is the ways in which a lack of data might form a source of power for some people in some circumstances (e.g. the power not to be seen, or not to see), while constituting a lack of power for others.
In all these ways, then, critical data studies signifies a set of distinct epistemological and ontological approaches to making sense of the social issues relating to digital data in contemporary society – foregrounding familiar sociological concerns with post-positivist and interpretivist understandings, an interest in the social construction of data, and a reflexive concern with revealing and challenging dominant power structures. These ideas and concerns are therefore reflected in the ways in which leading proponents of critical data studies frame key areas of concern. For example, Dalton and Thatcher (2014) suggest several ways in which researchers can set about fully interrogating contemporary ‘regimes of data’, i.e.:
- situating data regimes in time and space
- exposing data as inherently political and whose interests they serve
- unpacking the complex, non-deterministic relationship between data and society
- illustrating the ways in which data are never raw
- exposing the fallacies that data can speak for themselves and that ‘big data’ will replace ‘small data’
- exploring how new data regimes can be used in socially progressive ways
Dalton, C. and Thatcher, J. (2014) What does a critical data studies look like, and why do we care? Seven points for a critical approach to ‘big data’. Society and Space May 12th
Dalton, C., Taylor, L. and Thatcher, J. (2016). Critical data studies: a dialog on data and space. Big Data & Society, 3(1), 2053951716648346.
Iliadis, A. an Russo, F. (2016). Critical data studies: An introduction. Big Data & Society, 3(2), 2053951716674238.
Neff, G., Tanweer, A., Fiore-Gartland, B. and Osburn, L. (2017). Critique and contribute: A practice-based framework for improving critical data studies and data science. Big Data, 5(2), 85-97.