This chapter contributes to debates about the social life of methods by describing the co-evolution of a research practice and infrastructure. It offers straightforward description of an ethnographic practice where I collect sensor data with participants, such as heart rate or ambient temperature, rework it into interpretable form, and sit down together with them to co-produce its meaning. The chapter reflects on how that method evolved with the available technical infrastructure, and argues that taking the social life of methods seriously might also mean intervening directly in the tools that sustain cultures of big data.
Data is not just the stuff of social scientific method; it is the stuff of everyday life. The presence of digital data in an ever widening range of human relationships profoundly unsettles notions of expertise for both ethnographers and data scientists alike. This collection situates digital data in broader knowledge-production practices. It asks about the kinds of social worlds that data scientists are creating as the profession coalesces, and looks at the contemporary possibilities available to both ethnographers and their participants for knowing, formatting and intervening in the world. It shows what digital data is doing to the empirical methods that sustain claims to expertise, with a particular focus on implications for ethnography. The contributors offer empirically grounded accounts of the cultures, infrastructures and epistemologies of data production, analysis and use. They examine the professionalisation of data science in a variety of national and transnational contexts. They look closely at specific data practices like archiving of environmental data, or claims-making about how software is produced. They also offer a glimpse into the new methodological and pedagogical possibilities for teaching and doing ethnography in a data-saturated world.
The introduction to this collection sets out the key debates to which the chapters speak. It situates both digital data analysis and ethnography as methods which have their own ‘social lives’ and uses this approach to explore the work that methods do within particular projects of description and transformation.