Recovering critique in an age of datafication

Nick Couldry (2020)

New Media & Society 22(7), pp. 1135-1151

Abstract. This article starts out from the need for critical work on processes of datafication and their consequences for the constitution of social knowledge and the social world. Current social science work on datafication has been greatly shaped by the theoretical approach of Bruno Latour, as reflected in the work of Actor Network Theory and Science and Technology Studies (ANT/STS). The article asks whether this approach, given its philosophical underpinnings, provides sufficient resources for the critical work that is required in relation to datafication. Drawing on Latour’s own reflections about the flatness of the social, it concludes that it does not, since key questions, in particular about the nature of social order cannot be asked or answered within ANT. In the article’s final section, three approaches from earlier social theory are considered as possible supplements to ANT/STS for a social science serious about addressing the challenges that datafication poses for society.

Extract. “In a recent book On Critique, Boltanski (2011) attempts quite explicitly to rehabilitate the notion of critique for a radically pluralist and heterogeneous social world through a distinction between world (monde) and actual reality (realité). While recognizing the infinite plurality of possible orders within the world, Boltanski (2011) argues that ‘reality tends to coincide with what appears to hang together … [that is] with order’ (p. 57). What shapes this order? It is the institutions that have power over appearances (over ‘the whatness of what is’ (p. 56)). For Boltanski, legal institutions are particularly important, but we surely must add those institutions involved in fashioning the new datafied social knowledge. To recognize this sort of power, we must make the leap from default anti-reductionism to acknowledging how definitional powers not only exist but endure and become embedded in daily life in concrete ways. To do this, Boltanski must draw on the notion of social order that ANT/STS avoid. It is not that ANT/STS lack accounts of how something like definitional power emerges for certain purposes (Callon and Latour, 1981); it is rather that they seem uninterested in the force and long-term consequences for social life in general that follow from such power.”

Link to the review