Thursday, 14 October 2021

Reflections on big data as a white method

by Kaarina Nikunen

My new article, 'Ghosts of white methods? The challenges of Big Data research in exploring racism in digital context', is an outcome of the challenges met while using big data methods to study the complex phenomenon of racism in digital culture. The article is a reflection of the research process and an attempt to develop more nuanced approaches to study inequalities in digital culture. 

The starting point is the concept of white method introduced by Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi (2008) in critical race studies. White method refer to the dominance of whiteness in the social sciences and the tendency to fortify racial inequalities via research design. By exploring our research process, the article explores ways to challenge white logic and white methods in big data research.  

Three approaches are introduced: 1) using big data analytics to identify the dynamics of how racist discourse is produced online 2) complementing big data and going beyond big data via qualitative approaches and 3) using big data to question or reform the infrastructures that foster hate and racism – in other words, questioning the data- based logics of racism and discrimination. 

The first approach points out the need to open up data for reflexive interrogation of categories and possible built-in biases. It discusses what kind of racial biases arise when the research only leans on mainstream media sources or the usual social media database. The second approach shows how knowledge from experience can offer valuable insight on the structures, sites and experiences of racial injustice that often remain invisible in big data studies.  However, to avoid re-categorization, the knowledge from experience requires an anti-essentialist approach that is sensitive to complexities within and across experience. 

Finally, the article points out the significance of institutional context for countering white methods. Understanding the epistemic value of diversity on institutional level is crucial. Research of a complex phenomenon such as racism, requires time and different forms of collaboration that may not be easy in academic institutional contexts that emphasize speedy publishing.

No single method can answer or solve all our problems. Multiple approaches are needed to account for the different articulations of racial power and they need to be explored also in our own research processes. By revealing challenges met in the course of research I hope that the article might help others who are struggling with their methodological choices.