What we are reading #1

As we begin our project, we are engaging with interesting new scholarship on theory and methods related to lively data, data sense-making and more-than-human inquiry. Here on this blog, we will regularly post lists of new work we are discovering and finding ‘good to think with’. This is our first list.

  • Bergroth H. (2019) ‘You can’t really control life’: dis/assembling self-knowledge with self-tracking technologies. Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 20: 190-206.
  • Calvillo N and Garnett E. (2019) Data intimacies: building infrastructures for intensified embodied encounters with air pollution. The Sociological Review 67: 340-356.
  • Gangneux J. (2019) Rethinking social media for qualitative research: The use of Facebook Activity Logs and Search History in interview settings. The Sociological Review online first.
  • Hine C. (2019) Strategies for reflexive ethnography in the smart home: autoethnography of silence and emotion. Sociology online first.
  • Karlsson A. (2019) A room of one’s own? Using period trackers to escape menstrual stigma. Nordicom Review 40: 111-123.
  • Kingod N and Cleal B. (2019) Noise as dysappearance: attuning to a life with Type 1 diabetes. Body & Society online first.
  • Li Q. (2019) Towards a Taoist aesthetics of data visualization. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities online first.
  • Lomborg S and Kapsch PH. (2019) Decoding algorithms. Media, Culture & Society online first.
  • Meneley A. (2019) Walk this way: Fitbit and other kinds of walking in Palestine. Cultural Anthropology 34: 130-154.
  • Pridmore J, Zimmer M, Vitak J, et al. (2019) Intelligent personal assistants and the intercultural negotiations of dataveillance in platformed households. Surveillance & Society 17: 125-131.
  • Saariketo M. (2019) Encounters with self-monitoring data on ICT use. Nordicom Review 40: 125-140.
  • Stoilova M, Livingstone S and Nandagiri R. (2019) Children’s data and privacy online: growing up in a digital age. Research findings. Available at http://www.lse.ac.uk/my-privacy-uk/Assets/Documents/Childrens-data-and-privacy-online-report-for-web.pdf.
  • Walter M and Suina M. (2019) Indigenous data, indigenous methodologies and indigenous data sovereignty. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 22: 233-243.
  • Windeyer RC. (2019) Faces between numbers: re-imagining theatre and performance as instruments of critical data studies within a liberal arts education. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 24: 316-332.
  • Wong KLX and Dobson AS. (2019) We’re just data: exploring China’s social credit system in relation to digital platform ratings cultures in Westernised democracies. Global Media and China 4: 220-232.

Data Letters and Data Kondo

This week, we experimented with two writing activities that worked towards inspiring people to think creatively about their personal data, with a particular focus on their feelings and relationships with their data. These activities were chosen as a way to engage with a more-than-human approach to personal data understandings and practices that Deborah has been developing in publications such as her Data Selves book, seeking to surface aspects such as the affective forces, relational connections and agential capacities that we have with our data assemblages.

In our fieldwork, we plan to use activities like these as two main ways: first, to inspire people to think otherwise about their data; and second, as a way to kick-start conversations about their data that departs from the standard Q and A format of interviewing that is typically used in sociological research.

We held a workshop in which colleagues from the Vitalities Lab, other parts of UNSW Sydney and some visitors from other universities in Sydney, Europe and the USA came to test out the methods and discuss how generative they found them.

The first task was called ‘Data Letters’. We were inspired by an activity we found in the Universal Methods of Design book, involving writing a love letter or break up letter to a designated thing or service. We applied this method to our personal data. Workshop participants were asked to spend ten minutes writing in response to this stimulus:

Write a love letter or break up letter to your personal data. Use the standard letter format. Explain in your letter why you love or want to break up with your data. Sign off with your pseudonym.

The second activity was devised by Deborah. Entitled ‘Data Kondo’, as the title suggests, it was inspired by the approach to de-cluttering made famous by Marie Kondo, a Japanese ‘organising consultant’ who has become well-known in the Global North due to her thriving business based on her best-selling books and a Netflix series. Following a brief explanation of Kondo’s approach, this activity involved responding to these stimuli:

Imagine that you are clearing out and de-cluttering your digital device, as you would your house or apartment, based on Marie Kondo’s principles. You are getting rid of data clutter (your images, videos, music, documents, health or fitness information and any other information about you). Please write your thoughts below in response to the prompts.

  • What personal data would ‘spark joy’ for you and would you want to keep? And why?
  • What personal data would not ‘spark joy’, so that you are happy to get rid of them. Why?
  • Who would you give your discarded data to (if anyone) – or would you just permanently delete them straight off your device? Explain your decision?

After each activity, we had a group discussion about how we found this activity, what we learned from it, and how we might apply it in our research or teaching. Near the end of the workshop, participants were asked to spend a few minutes jotting down some reflections on the activities and we had a final discussion about the process.

A perusal of the writing and reflections generated from the tasks, along with our experiences of engaging with them and listening to the participants discuss their experiences, suggest that these activities worked well to inspire the more-than-human way of thinking about data we were hoping to achieve. Participants’ reflections included the following:

“I particularly liked the first activity as for me, it opened up a broader range of topics to be addressed (What is data? How do I related with it? How complex are the ways by which I relate with it?)”

“I really appreciated how the break up letter format made me respond emotionally rather than rationally to the prompt. For example, I found myself making a distinction between ‘real’ data (embarrassing, potentially useless things on the Internet’) and a second category which would cover my ‘offline’ curated information that is private, useful, and inaccessible to others.”

“I enjoyed the second exercise as well – particularly the idea of what personal data was meaningful or sparked joy for me. I don’t think people reflect often on all the ways data is personal in ways that are intimate, meaningful etc. without necessarily being negative/invasive. The complexity of data came out in these exercises.”

The participants’ reflections and discussion also raised some useful points to consider. Of course, these activities would not work with all types of groups: those who have disabilities making it difficult to write by hand, young children who are still developing literacy, people with low levels of education or people who are not fluent in English. For groups such as these, using visual methods or asking them to respond verbally to the prompts rather than in writing can be a better approach. (See our post on zine making for an approach that combines visual with writing methods.)

We emphasise again that activities such as these ideally should be seen as generative ways to start a conversation with research participants, so that these discussions along with the artefacts that are generated can be considered research materials for analysis or as teaching tools.

New book Data Selves now out

This Sociological Life

thumbnail_IMG_1455My new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives has now been released by Polity Press. In the book, I draw on feminist new materialism theory and the anthropology of material culture as well as analyses of popular culture and findings from my empirical studies talking to people about their personal data. I argue that personal data are more-than-human phenomena, invested with diverse forms of vitalities, and reveal the significant implications for data futures, politics and ethics. The book is a companion to my previous Polity book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking.

  • You can get a taste of the book on Amazon via its ‘Look Inside’ feature here.
  • An excerpt from the Introduction chapter can be found here.
  • An excerpt from the chapter on data materialisations can be found here.
  • An interview with me about the book can be found here.

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Algorithmic Micropolitics – a zine-making workshop

Zine workshop slides_Page_01.jpg

On Monday September 9, a group of researchers joined us for a workshop on the topic of algorithmic micropolitics. The workshop was held by the Vitalities Lab, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW, Sydney. Bringing together zine-making and digital data, we collaboratively made a zine to critically consider how we experience algorithms in everyday life. This workshop drew on and was a primer for some of the arts-based and co-design work we are doing in the ARC-funded project ‘Living with personal Data: Australians’ Understandings and Practices’.


To guide us in thinking about algorithmic micropolitics, we drew on excerpts from Taina Bucher’s 2018 book If… Then: Algorithmic Power and Politics and Deborah Lupton’s forthcoming book Data Selves: More-Than-Human Perspectives.

Chapter 5 of Bucher’s book focuses on ‘the barely perceived transitions in power that occur when algorithms and people meet’ (2018 p. 93). To start our discussions, before we dove into the cutting and pasting, we considered the question she poses at the start of this chapter: ‘When do people encounter algorithms, and what responses and imaginations do these encounters generate?’ (Bucher 2018 p. 93).

We also considered Lupton’s focus on ‘what personal data assemblages allow bodies to do, and how they come to matter in people’s lives’ (2019). We adopted a similar approach that she does, drawing on feminist new materialism, with our zine making practice: we aimed to ‘think more seriously and deeply about what is at stake when human-data assemblages are de-personalised and de-humanised’ (Lupton 2019).

Zines are an interesting creative form useful for considering things like micropolitics. They affectively and materially draw the personal and the political together on the page. Zines have a long history as a DIY, anti-establishment medium that poses an alternative to mainstream voices, representations, topics and issues. They resist the kinds of logics that can seep into academic workshops, like metrics and quantifiable ‘impact’, so are useful for trying to think (and do) in different ways than usual. Some recent social researchers have taken up zine-making as a participatory social research method (see resources below).

We made two kinds of zines at the workshop. The first was a collaborative endeavour – we made pages based on our discussions and reflections on what Bucher calls ‘the felt presence of algorithms in everyday life’ (2018 p. 99). The pages of this A5-sized zine sit in dialogue together, make use of quotes by Bucher and Lupton, and repurpose text and images from magazines and children’s books. You can download a print-ready version of this zine here (print double sided, flipped along the short edge).

We also made individual ones – small, 8-page zines made from single A4 pages. Some of the resources below have guidelines for making these.

Zine-making is a lively method for thinking with and against digital technologies. This zine engages with the affective encounters we have with data, digital tech and algorithms in everyday life.

More creative workshops from the Vitalities Lab are coming soon!

Excerpt from Introduction of Data Selves

This Sociological Life

My new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives is due for publication next month. Below is an edited excerpt from the Introduction chapter, in which I explain my theoretical approach.

The phenomenon of personal digital data poses a challenge at an ontological level. Personal data blur and challenge many of the binary oppositions and cultural boundaries that dominate in contemporary western societies. Personal data are both private and public. They could be considered to be owned by, and part of, the people who have generated them, but these details are also accessed and used by a multitude of other actors and agencies. At a deeper level, personal data challenge the ontological boundaries between the binary oppositions of Self/Other, nature/culture, human/nonhuman, and living/dead. Discussions of how digital data about and for people are incorporated into everyday lives must therefore grapple with the problem of how we conceptualise the idea of ‘the…

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Interview with me about my new book Data Selves

This Sociological Life


I did an interview recently with Rafael Grohmann about my new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives (out from Polity in October). He has now translated it into Portuguese and published it on his blog DigiLabour: available here.

Below are the original English questions and my written responses.

RG: What does data selves mean in a more-than-human perspective?

DL: A more-than-human perspective acknowledges that humans are always already part of nonhuman relations. Humans and nonhumans come together in assemblages that are constantly changing as humans move through their worlds. From this perspective, digital devices and software assemble with humans, and personal data are generated in and with these enactments. These data assemblages are more-than-human things. People live with and co-evolve with their personal data – they learn from data and data learn from them in a continually changing relationship.

RG: How can feminist materialism theory and the anthropology of material culture…

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Working with image cards in social research

This Sociological Life

As part of my experiments with innovative methods for social research and developing design sociology, I have been using a set of image cards developed by Dan Lockton and his team at the Imaginaries Lab for their New Metaphors workshops. Dan has kindly made these resources open access (see here). The cards consists of two types: 1) a range of diverse images of things, activities and experiences that exist in people’s everyday lives (natural phenomena like clouds, rain, trees or animals and things from built environments such as cracks in pavements, graffiti and the hum of a fridge); and 2) a range of topics, concepts or ideas (for example, safety, love, fame, half-remembered dreams and personal security). I printed out a set of the New Metaphors cards, and over the past two weeks have run two pop-up methods workshops at my Vitalities Lab to experiment with them.


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Kicking off the project

The Living with Personal Data project has just kicked off. We have appointed a Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Ashleigh Watson, to begin working on the project. While we are waiting for our ethics approval, Ashleigh is updating our literature review. In conjunction with the Vitalities Lab led by Deborah Lupton, we are running several pop-up methods workshops in the next few months to experiment with the innovative methods we will be using in our fieldwork, which will include home visits with people living in Sydney, and hands-on workshops with diverse groups of Australians.

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