big data big data critique general

“never use the word ‘data’!”

Ah, the 1980s. When we were being trained to remove “data” from our lexicon in interpretive sociology. I’m wondering if this would be a good article..

“Never use the word ‘data’!”

growing up in 1980s interpretive sociology

Sept. 19, 2019


Ah, the 1980s. When we were being trained to remove “data” from our lexicon in interpretive sociology. I’m wondering if this would be a good article…

For at least two decades in the late 20th century, there was a strong trend among scholars associate with the ‘interpretive turn’ or ‘linguistic turn’ to shift away from the concept of ‘data’. Many of us trained in 1980s and 1990s epistemologies of interpretive sociology in the US, for example, were told directly by our teachers and editors, “Never use the word data!” This terminological resistance followed the logic of the linguistic turn, that our everyday language choices shaped social reality. The non-data effort seemed successful, but then the early 2000s backlash against the (mis)perceived relativism of postmodernism happened. In this talk, I contend that this broad return to empiricism, or what funders and policymakers called ‘evidence based findings’, along with the subsequent focus on digital objects and big data, has effectively obscured the detailed efforts of scholars associated with the interpretive turn in the 80s and 90s, especially outside the United States. After briefly sketching this history, I discuss how the definitional parameters for what counts as data has continually plagued qualitative researchers. For many, the stakes of winning or losing this debate over the matter of a small word is paramount.

One reply on ““never use the word ‘data’!””

Dear Prof. Markham,

I am a faculty member at the Univ. of Washington, and I just ran across a posting of this talk on the “Data Then and Now” seminar series organized by UW’s eScience Institute. I was very disappointed to learn that it was cancelled, and therefore, no recording is available! I am reaching out to you to learn if there was a recording of your talk at another venue that I could watch, or if you could suggest some articles that I could seek out on this topic.

I did my graduate work in computational chemistry, so my default is to interpret the term “data” as at least neutral if not positive. (Although, as I learn more about modern data science and social science methods, it’s clear that data is only as “neutral” as the method used to gather it.) I am now a teaching professor and a nascent science education researcher. I am deeply interested in learning more about qualitative methods used in the social sciences to inform my educational research. I have also heard rumors about the ideological debates of the 80’s and 90’s and I would like to learn more, so I can understand how social science research has evolved, as well as its relationship to the term “data.” If you have any suggestions of where to start, I would be very grateful!

Thank you very much for reading this! I hope you are healthy and safe during the time of COVID-19.

Take care,

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