Contested Data

What Happens When the Givens Aren’t Taken

March 6, 2020
8:45 a.m.- 6:00 p.m. ET

On March 6, 2020, Data & Society will host a workshop in New York City on how data and data infrastructures lose their legitimacy. Participation in this event is limited; those who are interested in participating should apply by November 25.

Data & Society workshops enable deep dives with a broad community of interdisciplinary researchers into topics at the core of Data & Society’s concerns. They’re designed to maximize scholarly thinking about the evolving and socially important issues surrounding data-driven technologies.

Workshop participants will be asked to read 2-3 full papers in advance of the event and prepare comments for intensive discussion. Some participants will be asked to be discussants of papers, where they will lead the conversation and engage the room. Authors will not present their work, but rather participate in critical discussion with the assembled group about the paper, with the explicit intent of making the work stronger and more interdisciplinary.

Contested Data: What Happens When the Givens Aren’t Taken

The word “data” derives from the Latin for the givens. And though we often think about data as something to be gathered, hoarded, culled, or stripped, the reason we want it is so that it can be our givens. Data provide the basis for our analyses, valuations, decisions, or arguments. Today, data seem ever more important. Many private and public actors push for data-driven medicine or data-driven policymaking, with a trajectory toward data-driven everything. Data must train the machine learning systems and AIs that hire and fire, parole and police, price and predict.

What if people won’t accept the givens? How and why do people refuse to accept data, and the infrastructures that provide data, as valid for future action? What are the larger social, political, or economic consequences of such a refusal?

Much important work has already been done to investigate the knowledge practices that legitimate data, a field that has grown out of earlier studies by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, statisticians, and philosophers into practices of quantification. We are learning more and more about why people trust in numbers and in data, to extend Ted Porter’s phrase.

This workshop seeks papers that come at the question of legitimation from the other direction: why don’t people trust in data, especially data that once was deemed trustworthy? Inspired by work on “agnotology” and on knowledge practices that produce doubt, we seek participants prepared to think beyond data mining to the process by which data is undermined.

The purpose of this workshop is to bring together researchers who are examining these issues from different disciplinary and analytic perspectives. Relevant topics for this workshop might include:

  • When in the past have state-produced data sets (census, official surveys, etc.) or index numbers (cost-of-living, GDP, unemployment, etc.) fallen out of use or been challenged to the point that they could no longer serve their purpose? How do alternatives to official sources of data arise?
  • What practices have state, corporate, or civil society actors employed to generate doubt in a data’s accuracy or utility?
  • What roles have scientists or other technically sophisticated actors played in debates and controversies surrounding the legitimacy of data?
  • How has the larger public engaged in debates about data and data infrastructures?

Participation requirements

All participants are required to read up to three papers in advance of the event and come ready to offer constructively critical feedback. We want researchers from different intellectual traditions to spar with and challenge one another to strengthen ourselves across the board. This is not an event for passive attendance, but an opportunity to engage each other substantively and from cross-disciplinary perspectives.

A subset of participants will workshop papers they have written. This is a fantastic venue for workshopping a paper. If you have an appropriate paper in-progress, you are strongly encouraged to submit it for consideration. Drafts of journal articles, conference papers, law review papers, and book chapters are all welcome. Papers are expected to be at draft stage with room for improvement; the goal of this event is not to present largely finished work but to truly workshop works-in-progress.

For this event, we are looking to bring together researchers from diverse disciplines ranging from sociology to law, science studies to history, and anthropology to media studies. As a result, attendees should expect to engage with scholars who are outside of their field.

We ask that attendees think of this as an opportunity to engage across fields, and to strengthen both relationships and research through participation in the workshop. While we see this as valuable for individual authors, we also see this as a field-building exercise that we hope will be valuable for all involved.


The workshop will include a mix of deep-dive discussions on data contestation, as well as 2-3 slots focused on workshopping papers. Each paper session will be 75 minutes long. One paper will be workshopped in each session. Multiple sessions will run in parallel so there will be a total of 6-9 papers, but each participant will only be responsible for, at most, 3. Within each group, a discussant will open with a critique of the paper before inviting participants to share their feedback. (If you participate in this event and are not an author, you may be asked to be a discussant.) All are expected to share feedback, with author response towards the end of the session.


The event will take place at Data & Society in New York City on March 6, 2020 and will run from 8:45 a.m. to 6 p.m.

There is limited travel support for our out-of-town guests. If you are in need of travel support, please let us know. We will not be able to accommodate all travel needs so if you have grants or other means of covering your participation, please use that so that we can prioritize funding for those who have none.

Application to participate

If you are interested in attending this workshop, you may either 1) propose a paper to be workshopped; or 2) describe how your research makes you a relevant discussant/participant.

Please note: All co-authors who are intending to attend must apply separately. They should submit the same paper abstract. If your paper is accepted, you will be allowed to send 2 authors. Additional authors will be considered as discussants/participants.

By November 25, please submit the following information via this Submittable portal:

  • Name, email address, affiliation, title, discipline.
  • Bio and headshot (used for the program if accepted).
  • If applying as an author, a 1-page (max) abstract of a paper you’d like to workshop.
  • If applying as a participant/discussant, a 1-page (max) discussion of your interests as it relates to this topic.
  • Bibliographic citations / links to 3 papers (yours or others) that everyone interested in this domain should read. [Optional]

Key Dates:

  • Application Deadline: November 25, 2019
  • Selection Decisions: December 9, 2019
  • Revised Abstract Deadline: January 31, 2019
  • Full Paper Deadline: February 5, 2019
  • Workshop: March 6, 2019