Reading Bowker on The Theory / Data thing

Bowker, G.C. (2014). The Theory/Data Thing. Inter­na­tion­al Journ­al of Com­mu­nic­a­tion 8 (2043), 1795 – 1799.

theory-data-thing

Thanks to Barry Brown for for­ward­ing this com­ment­ary by Geof­frey Bowker.

I accept Bowker’s cri­ti­cism of Latour (although it is some­what sweep­ing), and I like the point that it’s under­stand­ing’ that’s at stake. Latour’s flat­ten­ing of net­works (à la Tarde) has been use­ful for me in think­ing through agency and entan­gle­ments, but it starts to run out of steam when it comes to thick­en­ing under­stand­ing — (I’m in favour of Latour’s pre-Tardian actor-network).

I do won­der though how we might say some­thing more on this data thing? It doesn’t seem enough now to cri­ti­cise those pro­claim­ing the end of the­or­ies, cat­egor­ies and indeed eth­no­graphy. We know big data, much like any oth­er inter­pret­ive act, slices through and embroid­ers a kind of truth. The great­er chal­lenge is to ask what does data do that might thick­en truths and give them some (more/other) legs, so to speak? I’d want to know what Bowker thinks this (big) data thing might be good for and wheth­er they might just enable oth­er forms of under­stand­ing.

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