The Co-Evolution of Data and Method

The project seeks to advance critical understanding of where data comes from and how it is used, setting the present moment within a century-long history of information supply and its power-laden consequences.

Across the humanities and social sciences, methods of knowledge production are being transformed by an extraordinary expansion of digitized information. The same is true outside the university: governments, corporations, and civil society are all grappling with new possibilities, and new risks, shaped by massive data flows and new tools brought to bear on them.

Our year-long seminar—uniting two dozen Pittsburgh-area faculty, graduate students, and practitioners with fourteen leading international scholars who will visit us as guest speakers—sets the present moment within a century-long history of information supply and its power-laden consequences.

We trace the interlinked processes through which the creation of data (and its absence) has played out both within society as a whole, and within the academic disciplines to which we turn for our understandings of societies, cultures, and individuals. How are information sources generated, to what end, and with what results for our collective ability to see—or to ignore? This in an inquiry into the social and political life of data, both within the academy and in the wider world.

As our comparative historical approach underlines, neither data availability nor analytic method is neutral or “simply” technical. When new forms of information are generated, they change the questions we ask and the answers we find. When new technologies emerge to process that information they do likewise, and the new affordances they offer in turn shift incentives around the forms and rules of data creation.

A core question we will pursue is how the infrastructure of information gathering and maintenance—the laws, labor systems, and investments that shape the availability of data, from documents to survey responses to geotagged tweets—has shaped the possibilities and blind spots of academic disciplines. Throughout, we call attention to the ways that gendered, racialized, and international hierarchies have patterned participation in the production of knowledge. Data is created; absences are created. Each has profound impact on real communities and real lives.

The present moment is a particularly salient time to convene this conversation at the University of Pittsburgh and in the City of Pittsburgh, both of which find themselves at the epicenter of digital change and transformation. The University of Pittsburgh recently created the School of Computing and Information (SCI), its first new school in over two decades. The University is generating new curriculum, centers, and resources at the interstices of computational social science and the digital humanities.

Meanwhile the city is a growing hub of tech sector activity, with not only Carnegie Mellon University but Google, Apple, Uber, and other companies expanding their offices here. And regional governance is increasingly being informed by digitized data in the city’s Department of Innovation and Performance and the new Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. Digital skils—including the crucial skill of knowing how to analyze critically the limits of what data can or should do—have never been more urgent.

Our core co-PI team of eight Pitt faculty members come from disciplines across the social sciences and humanities. Each is both a practitioner of quantitative, computational, and digital methods and an eager student of the gaps and hypervisibilities within the information sources we process. We are all convinced that the co-proliferation of data sources and advanced computational techniques makes interdisciplinary dialogue within graduate training more essential than ever.

The seminar reflects our conviction that for scholars across the humanities and social sciences, critical analysis of the factors shaping information supply is not an alternative, but rather a crucial complement, to advanced training in the application of quantitative, computational, and digital methods. Indeed, critical knowledge of context is fundamental to our ability to use tools mindfully for maximum leverage on our research questions.

In sum, this year-long seminar will bring together an unusually varied range of practitioners and disciplinary specialists to analyze the co-evolution of data and method across more than a century. We will shine new light on the off-stage processes that transform how knowledge is made—and to weigh the consequences.

At a moment when societies are in urgent need of guidance to navigate rapidly shifting digital terrain, we are coming together to build a deep understanding of the social and political life of data.