Undermining ‘data’: A critical examination of a core term in scientific inquiry

Annette N. Markham, Transforming the Curriculum: South African Imperatives and 21st Century, Oct 07, 2013
Commentary by Stephen Downes

The allure of data, says Annette N. Markham, is that it is "a priori and collectable." It is the fact of the matter, established before the fact. But as she argues here, the frame through which we collect and examine data, especially big data, changes what we see. On one hand, "The entire industry of academic publishing is predicated on the foundation of knowledge building, which looks more like a finished product than an ongoing dialogue among colleagues." But as David Weinberger says, "the networking of knowledge may be teaching us that the world itself is more like a shapeless, intertwingled, unmasterable web than like a well–reasoned argument." We need to rethink what we mean by research. "We’re not just asking the wrong question. We’re using frames that both privilege and reinforce a very narrow notion of inquiry."

Today's First Monday is based on the theme of data, and especially big data. View the table of contents. A couple articles also worthy of note include The Big Head and the Long Tail, which looks at differences in content types, and A Critical Reflection on Big Data, which looks at the information available through APIs. Several papers referenced danah boyd and Kate Crawford, Critical Questions for Big Data, which defines big data as "a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon that rests on the interplay of (1) Technology (gather, analyze, link, and compare large data sets, (2) Analysis (identify patterns in order to make economic, social, technical, and legal claims), and (3) Mythology (the widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge).

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