Research Brief: Race and “Big Data”

We’re back to our regularly scheduled series of posts now that the awful Sterling business has died down a bit and I’m back from traveling. So, it’s Monday and that means it’s time for your research brief. This week’s round up is prompted by the terrific British Sociological Meetings I attended recently. Several scholars there are working on “big data,” including a compelling plenary by Evelyn Ruppert (Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London).  Ruppert is launching a new, open access, peer-reviewed journal called Big Data & Society.

And, most relevant for our discussion of race is the work of David Skinner (Sociology, Anglia Ruskin University), who is working in the area of race and big data. Both Ruppert’s and Skinner’s work prompted me to look for more on race and big data, and this is what you’ll find in this week’s research brief.

Research in the Dictionary

If the 1990s was all about the information superhighway and the network society, then the first 10 years of the 21st century is perhaps best described as the decade of data. Actors in different enterprises worked feverishly to develop innovative database and data mining technologies for institutional goals such as marketing, social networking, and scientific discovery. These researchers and data entrepreneurs follow an emerging belief that gathering and mining massive amounts of digital data will give objective insight into human relations and provide authentic representations for decision-making. On the surface, the technologies used to mine big data have the appearance of value-free and neutral inquiry. However, as information entrepreneurs use database and data mining technologies to purposively organize the social world, this seeming neutrality obfuscates domain assumptions and leaves cultural values and practices of power unexamined. We investigate the role of communication and social shaping of database and data mining technologies in the institutional context of genome science to understand how various stakeholders (scientists, policy makers, social scientists, and advocates) articulate racialized meanings with biological, physical, and big data. We found a rise in the use of racial discourse that suggests race has a genetic foundation.

Google Earth was released a few months prior to Hurricane Katrina and became an important tool in distributing information about the damage occurring in New Orleans, albeit not to all parts of society. While Google Earth did not create the economic and racial divides present in society, its use in the post-Katrina context reflect this gulf and have arguably reinforced and recreated it online. This paper has three main objectives. The first is to provide a clear empirical case study of how race remains relevant to the way people use (or do not use) the internet and internet based services. The second is highlighting the power of new online and interactive mapping technologies and demonstrating how these technologies are differentially adopted. The third and final objective is illustrating how any divide in accessing digital technology is not simply a one time event but a constantly moving target as new devices, software and cultural practices emerge. Thus, in addition to highlighting the racial inequalities in US society in general, Hurricane Katrina provides an important window on the way in which race remains a key factor in the access and use of emerging digital technologies.

This article explores the place of ‘ethnicity’ in the operation, management and contestation of the UK National DNA Database (NDNAD). In doing so, it examines the limitations of bioethics as a response to political questions raised by the new genetics. The UK police forensic database has been racialised in a number of distinct ways: in the over-representation of black people in the database population; in the classification of all DNA profiles according to ‘ethnic appearance’; in the use of data for experiments to determine the ethnicity of crime scene DNA; and in the focus on ethnicity in public debate about the database. This racialisation presented potential problems of legitimacy for the NDNAD but, as the article shows, these have been partly neutralised through systems of ethico-political governance. In these systems of governance discussion of institutional racism has been postponed or displaced by other ways of talking about ethnicity and identity.

Territorial borders just like other boundaries are involved in a politics of belonging, a politics of “us” and “them”. Border management regimes are thus part of processes of othering. In this article, we use the management of borders and populations in Europe as an empirical example to make a theoretical claim about race. We introduce the notion of the phenotypic other to argue that race is a topological object, an object that is spatially and temporally folded in distributed technologies of governance. To elaborate on these notions, we first examine a number of border management technologies through which both race and Europe are brought into being. More specifically we focus on how various such technologies aimed at monitoring the movement of individuals together with the management of populations have come to play crucial roles in Europe. Different border management regimes, we argue, do not only enact different versions of Europe but also different phenotypic others. We then shift the focus from border regimes to internal practices of governance, examining forensic DNA databanks to unravel articulations of race in the traffic between databases and societies.

I’d love to know about other research in this area, so if you’re working on this, don’t be shy ~ drop a comment and let me know about your work!

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