What Data Can Do: A Typology of Mechanisms

Christin, Angèle (2020)

In: International Journal of Communication 14, pp. 1115-1134.


“This article offers an analytical framework for understanding the effects of data on the social world. Specifically, I ask: What happens when new data —digital or not—is introduced in a given context? Drawing on a mix of historical and contemporary examples, I provide a typology of 5 mechanisms: tracking, homogenizing, triaging, nudging, and valuating. I then demonstrate how this framework can change how we understand two empirical cases involving data-driven software programs, one in Web journalism and the other in criminal justice. Based on this analysis, the article makes three main points. First, at a time of rapid technological development, we should pay particular attention to what is not changing with digitization. Second, we need further theoretical integration in the rapidly growing field of critical data studies. Third, I suggest that the umbrella concept of “data” should be broken down into smaller and more manageable components depending on the mechanisms scholars are interested in studying.”


“The trust we put in numbers as transparent and objective measurements of the “real” world has a long history (Espeland & Stevens, 1998; Porter, 1996). Broader cultural and institutional factors have legitimized data as a valued way of representing the world and making decisions about it. Historians of science have analyzed the emergence of widespread beliefs in the higher value of “mechanical objectivity” and the aura of rationality that have accompanied numbers over the past three centuries (Daston & Galison, 2007). They retraced the development of aesthetic and moral principles that make us see data as “valuable and beautiful” (Halpern, 2015, p. 5). Over time, these positive meanings attached to numbers and data moved beyond the realm of science and engineering, making their way into public administration, nonscientific institutions, and everyday life (Igo, 2008; Porter, 1996). A second and related thread of analysis ties the institutionalization of numbers and their growing legitimacy to economic production and to the cultural frames supporting the complexification of capitalism. Thus, social scientists have highlighted the longer arc of rationalization and quantification techniques. Key episodes in this long history include the rise of double-entry bookkeeping (Carruthers & Espeland, 1991; Weber, 1978), the birth of public statistics (Desrosières, 2002), the commodification and monetization of domains previously protected from quantitative appraisal (Marx, 1992; Simmel, 2011; Zelizer, 2010), the role of numbers in sustaining colonialism and slavery (Browne, 2015), the development of quantitative measurements designed to increase worker productivity during and after the industrial revolutions (Edwards, 1979; Kellogg, Valentine, & Christin, 2020), and the multiplication of data-driven standards to support complicated logistics and supply chains (Star & Bowker, 2000). More recently, economic sociologists have pointed to the role of economics and ideologies of market fundamentalism in promoting numbers as well as quantitative frameworks, including cost–benefit analysis and mathematical equations, as fair and efficient assessments of value (Espeland & Stevens, 1998; Fourcade, 2011).” (pp 1117-1118)

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Lebensführung im Alter(n)swandel. Impulse für eine interdisziplinäre Sozialstrukturanalyse des höheren Alters.

Bolze, Max (2020)

Wiesbaden: Springer VS.


“Max Bolze entwickelt an der Schnittstelle zwischen Alter(n)s- und Lebensstilforschung ein interdisziplinäres Forschungsprogramm, das er als Sozialstrukturanalyse des höheren Alters charakterisiert. Den Kern bildet ein handlungstheoretisch fundiertes Mehrebenenmodell zur Analyse von Lebensführungen. Mit diesem gelingt es, die sozialwissenschaftliche Diskussion um eine soziale und kulturelle Differenzierung des Alter(n)s theoretisch-konzeptionell präziser zu erfassen und empirisch zugänglich zu machen. Hierfür werden methodologische und empirische Zugänge gelegt, über die durch Methodenintegration eine Verbesserung der in der Lebensstilforschung häufig problematisierten Typenbildung erreicht werden kann.”


“Aus meiner Sicht ist die Angewandte Gerontologie als Forschungsfeld, das zur Verbesserung der Lebensqualität älterer Menschen beiträgt, grundsätzlich begrüßenswert. Die Modifikation des Alterns sollte jedoch erkennbarer von der wertfreien Beschreibung und Erklärung dessen, was alte Menschen tun, getrennt werden. Die verwendeten Konzepte und die ihnen unterliegenden Konventionen sollten bei allen Betrachtungsweisen stets observiert und in ihren Produktionsbedingungen und Auswirkungen kritisch hinterfragt werden. […] Hier bietet die aus Frankreich stammende Wissenschaftsbewegung der ‚Economie des conventions‘ spannende Ansatzpunkte. Aus einer pragmatischen Perspektive wird insbesondere der Blick auf die Konventionen (im Sinne von Weltsichten, Normativitäten, Koordinationslogiken) gerichtet, die bei der Herstellung und Organisation von Wissen, Handlungen und Prozessen eine Rolle spielen (Boltanski und Thévenot 2007). In jüngerer Zeit gewinnt die Economie des conventions auch im deutschsprachigen Raum an Bedeutung (Diaz-Bone 2018a). Eine Verknüpfung zur Alter(n)sforschung steht noch aus.” (S. 23/Fußnote 12)

Lifestyle in a changing age. Impulses for an interdisciplinary social structure analysis of old age/aging


“Max Bolze is developing an interdisciplinary research program at the interface between age(s) and lifestyle research, which he characterizes as a social structure analysis of old age. The core is a multi-level model based on action theory for the analysis of lifestyles. This model makes it possible to grasp the social science discussion on social and cultural differentiation of age/aging more precisely in theoretical and conceptual terms and to make it empirically accessible. For this purpose, methodological and empirical approaches are being developed, which, through the integration of methods, can lead to an improvement in the type formation that is often problematic in lifestyle research.”


“In my view, applied gerontology is fundamentally welcome as a field of research that contributes to improving the quality of life of older people. However, the modification of ageing should be more clearly separated from the value-free description and explanation of what older people do. The concepts used and the conventions that underlie them should always be observed and their production conditions and effects critically questioned in all approaches. […] Here the French-born scientific movement of the ‘Economie des conventions’ offers exciting starting points. From a pragmatic perspective, it focuses in particular on the conventions (in the sense of world views, normativities, coordination logics) that play a role in the production and organization of knowledge, actions and processes (Boltanski and Thévenot 2007). More recently, the Economie des conventions has also gained importance in the German-speaking world (Diaz-Bone 2018a). A link to research on ageing/research on age is still pending.” (p. 23/footnote 12)