Sunday 13 March 2022

Special Theme on Data, Power, and Racial Formation

Data, Power, and Racial Formation: Situating Data within Interlocking Systems of Oppression

The promise of big data lies in its ability to draw connections and reveal patterns about social life. There are growing concerns, however, that the reliance on big data can threaten not only to automate discrimination and oppression but also to become central mechanisms through which racism operates. 

Critical observers encourage closer attention be paid to how power manifests in and through the application of big data as well as through automated systems and so-called ‘smart’ technologies. This special issue heeds their advice by exploring how race and racism are entangled in the collection and use of data. The papers in this collection showcase a range of interdisciplinary insights to demonstrate how data studies might benefit from deeper engagement with intellectual schools of thought concerned with race and racism—both theoretically and practically. They illustrate how theories of race and racism can enhance understandings of big data’s material impacts and can inform approaches to addressing these impacts. Authors make productive inroads regarding how data emerge in and through racial projects as they intersect with systems of class, colonialism, disability, gender, and sexuality. 

Looking at how big data reflects entanglements of racialised power prompts a range of critical questions. How do modes of datafication normalise racial classification systems and mask their sociocultural underpinnings? To what extent can big data work in the service of liberatory agendas? What are the opportunities and risks of practices and systems that promise more equitable outcomes? 

In answering these questions, this collection captures connections and tensions between data and racial formation. Racial formation, often associated with work by sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant, captures the relationships between socio-economic and political changes and the shifting nature and value of racial categories, including the meanings they come to reflect. 

The collection thus builds upon longstanding concerns about data and racialised power. Its aim is to bring them into dialogue with more recent discussions in critical data studies. Such work includes, but is not limited to, how data animate knowledge systems in ways that may be actively harm Black and Indigenous peoples, as well as other minoritised communities, and how race and racialised value systems appear in datasets, machine learning models, and ‘smart’ home devices. In addition to contributing to scholarly debates about how data are mobilised to generate racial formations, authors’ insights support strategies for anti-racist movements by drawing attention to how they can be challenged and disrupted.

Papers in this special issue address how data become implicated within the interlocking systems of domination and oppression, doing so in ways that are attentive to effects that emerge in everyday lives and livelihoods. Phan and Wark reconsider how datafied processes evince new shifts in processes of racialisation. Hatch examines how the governance of COVID-19-related health data became a site where data about racial death became framed as a matter for liberal reform but served to support racist social systems. Henne, Shelby, and Harb demonstrate how racial capitalism can advance understandings of data capital and the inequalities it can generate, doing so through an in-depth study of digital platforms used for intervening in gender-based violence. Sooriyakumaran is similarly concerned about racialised inequalities etched and shaped by capitalist relations, considering how they manifest in digitised residential tenancy databases in Australia. Crooks (2021) shows how non-profit efforts to make public schools more “data driven” can be understood as racial projects. Anantharajah (2021) attends to how racial formation takes shape through colonial data projects, drawing on ethnographic research on climate finance governance conducted in Fiji. 

This special thematic issue offers one set of responses to the pressing need to critically examine how race and racism are entangled in the collection and use of data. It brings together longstanding and emergent concerns regarding data’s role within racial formation. It also reflects on recent cultural and political developments as well as geopolitical and socio-technical shifts. In doing so, this collection of papers marks an attempt to illuminate how data become implicated within the interlocking systems of domination and oppression that affect everyday lives and livelihoods. We recognise that many others are working on similarly projects. We therefore hope the collection serves as a productive resource for readers from a range of fields and contributes to a generative dialogue that crosses disciplinary boundaries.