12 Oct 2021


Philomathia Social Science Seminar Series

Data, it’s not a thing: approaches to studying data and data practices ethnographically

One of the puzzling things about taking ‘data’ as the focus of ethnographic enquiry is not just the effort it takes to make it visible, but also the extent to which it can somehow suddenly slip from view. The last decade has been characterised by both massive hype in industry and business contexts in the UK and US around the revolutionary power of big data, and no less dramatic critical responses to that hype in the press and academia. But dig a little deeper and clear definitions or parameters of data seem to dissolve or multiply, despite legislative efforts to the contrary; data seems to be valued for what it will become, not what it is. At the same time, concepts like data power, data colonialism and data violence, which foreground the very concrete, everyday and deleterious effects of data practices on people’s lives, are proving useful tools for critical data scholars. So what do we mean when we talk about data, and how can ethnographers study this emergent socio-technical and political space? Working through some of the reasons for the ambivalent state of data for anthropology, in this talk I will be discussing some tactics or strategies to make data not just visible, but graspable, as an ethnographic subject, and why we should bother doing so. After all, data is not really a thing, is it?

Presenter: Dr Antonia Walford, Lecturer in Digital Anthropology at UCL.

Organizers: Dr Ignacia Arteaga, Dr Katarzyna Cieslik, Dr Juan Manuel del Nido, Dr Debangana Bose.


Social Science Research for the 21st Century - Progress through Partnership

Email: philomathia@admin.cam.ac.uk