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Ethnography in the age of Big Data

Date & Time:
16:30:00 - 18:00:00,
Tuesday 10 June, 2014


In this double-bill for the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group’s (OxDEG) final seminar of the year, we’ll hear from two eminent scholars who are asking important questions about epistemology, rationality and method in an age that is dominated by computer systems that have become heavily embedded in daily life.

Digital Positivismusstreit: Method, Rationality and the New Social Physics

There is a new epistemology in town. Relying heavily on data extracted from phones, sensors, platforms and other devices, this new epistemology – what I am calling the data signal – sits in relation to the long history of debates about the limits of knowledge and the capacities of method. Some years ago we were warned of the ‘coming crisis in empirical sociology’, as large tech companies who trade in data profiles were building up models of the social, and related tools of analysis, far surpassing those of the empirically minded social scientists. In short, the survey was dead. Since then, the situation has intensified: Big Data went mainstream, Snowden allowed us to glimpse the Leviathan’s new gaze, Nate Silver is predicting everything and people at MIT are busy ‘reality mining’. There is a coming Positivismusstreit, brought about by the ‘datafication’ of everything. The first task is to understand this new epistemology. Only then can we consider the capacity and potential of ethnography in relation to this post- or algo-ethnographic milieu.

Algorithmic Ethnography

There is a potentially fruitful crossover between the fields of digital media, software studies and digital humanities through a number of theoretical, methodological and technical innovations in each of these fields. This talk outlines how these can inform and contribute towards ethnographic practices of research into algorithms with a particular orientation towards concepts for deployment in relation to ethnographic research practice. For example, the question of how we should engage with both the material and the symbolic in relation to algorithms is made easier when ethnographic research forms part of the research methods utilised. In particular, this talk examines how can we mobilise particular ethnographic approaches towards distant and close readings of software and undertake critical research into both surfaces and machinery of computational systems.

Data Dump to delete


  • Name: Dr Nathaniel Tkacz|Dr David M. Berry
  • Affiliation: University of Warwick|University of Sussex and Co-Director of the Research Centre for Material
    Digital Culture
  • Role: |
  • URL:|
  • Bio: Nathaniel Tkacz holds a PhD in Culture and Communication from The University of Melbourne. His work lies at the intersection of network cultures, software studies and political theory. Over the last few years he has been researching the political and organisational dynamics of ‘openness’, with a sustained focus on Wikipedia. His current interest lies with experimental finance made possible by distributed networks, and also the rise of dashboard interfaces in organizational and everyday life. His forthcoming books include Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness (University of Chicago Press, 2014), Digital Light (with Sean Cubitt and Daniel Palmer, Open Humanities Press: Fibreculture Series, 2014) and The MoneyLab Reader (with Geert Lovink, INC Reader Series, 2015).|David M. Berry is Reader in the School of Media, Film and Music, at the University of Sussex and Co-Director of the Research Centre for Material Digital Culture. His most recent books include Critical Theory and the Digital (2014) and Understanding Digital Humanities (2012).