The conceptual and methodological challenges of researching digital data in context

Year: 2021

Author: Pangrazio, Luci

Type of paper: Symposium

There are a number of reasons why contemporary societies should be concerned by datafication: the increasing dominance of data-driven epistemologies in social policy and marketing; the lack of control individuals have over how they are inscribed by data and the influence of this on their behaviours and interactions; and the intensification of social justice issues due to data-driven decision-making, governance and power in civil society. In response, a body of critical data scholarship is emerging that seeks to investigate data in material contexts such as the home, school and workplace. Much of this work attempts to influence social policies and regulation to ensure that personal data is used ethically and safely within datafied systems.However, one overarching challenge for critical researchers is that data is often thought of as immaterial – devoid of physical properties and without a tangible form. Imagined as immaterial, data is thought to be more responsive, adaptable and mutable and therefore ready to fulfil the demands of a datafied system, whether that system be in a school, business or home. While this might serve the purposes of commercial digital platforms and institutional demands, it makes it difficult to research the everyday realities of living and working in a datafied society. This paper explores the conceptual and methodological challenges of researching data in context. The immateriality of digital data presents a challenge to research as there is no stable object or text to apprehend. In addition, it is always in-flow between multiple devices, goods and infrastructures that are downloading and uploading data. This creates a tension for researchers as investigation often seeks a static picture of datafication in order to grasp what is taking place. Drawing on digital materiality theory, this paper presents a new approach to researching digital data based upon making data transparent. By materializing the processes and production of datafication in context, this approach opens up an investigation of the political and economic dimensions of data, as well as its embodied and affective consequences.