Queering big data

images-32Back from Berlin, having met so many good people. After the discussions in the Feminist Big Data plenary and the Bodies session (in AioR 2016), I am sharing here the key points of my intervention. In the paper that I presented in the Bodies panel, I talked about my research on reproductive health and wellbeing apps and cultures of self-tracking. A steady line of inquiry in my current work and in my book, that is coming out in March,  is the reshaping of feminist practices with digital media. I find it necessary to ask what form feminist politics around reproductive rights take with new data practices, and more generally, what might a feminist critique to data collection look like? For me, this use raises some critical social, political and ethical questions around data ownership and power, labour and exploitation. But they also offer the possibility for new modes of engagement with our bodies, our data, and with biomedical knowledge; they also may present new  feminist frontiers and realities.

My provocation during the plenary discussion, as a contribution to what a feminist approach to big data would entail, was about queering big data. First, I brought as an example the QSXX groups (women-identified only Quantified Self meet-ups), to suggest the necessity for situated (digital media) practices in relation to self-tracking and big data – I write about these in my new book on Feminist activism and Digital Networks. I used ‘situated’ borrowing from Donna Haraway’s work on seeing things from an always partial perspective and from the social context where one finds themselves standing in. Why is it necessary and relevant to a feminist big data perspective to look at situated practices like this? Because such spaces and groups may be reflexive of the exclusions they perform and of their own privilege. And because here ‘small data’ approaches and storytelling can be politically productive ways of working with data.

Then I argued that we need to move beyond critiques of masculinist design, and actually queer big data. How? First, queering data, as a critique means resisting the marketing pitch of products and services that reproduce the heterosexual, nuclear family. Second, we need to turn the discourse of risk around, and conceptualise uncertainty and risk in ways that don’t victimise women, but instead, enable political action. And third, we need to challenge the positivist perception that more data will bring about more certainty in the future.

This is an epigrammatic post, and probably only resonates with those already in the audience, but after the wealth of tweets from the two talks, some misconceptions that need clarification, and requests for slides, I thought I’d leave this here, before the more elaborate discussion of the journal article (and the book) come out.

Feminist Big Data & session Bodies in #Aoir2016 Berlin

I can’t wait to talk about feminist research methods, big data and self-tracking in Berlin.

fleshmachineOn Thursday, October 6 between 16:00 – 17:30, I will be presenting work in the Panel ‘Bodies’, chaired by Gina Neff. My paper is about Feminism in the era of the Quantified Self: Agency, labour and future markets. I examine dominant discourses of empowerment in apps targeting women (reproductive health and well being), and I discuss how far data collection has the potential to make the voices of women heard, beyond the articulation of consumer demands about digital health. This is new work in progress. 


On Friday, October 7, between 11:00 – 12:30, we’re discussing feminist approaches to big data culture with Helen Kennedy (Sheffield), Jean Burgess, Kate Crawford, Rosemary Lucy Hill, & Kate O’Riordan, in the first roundtable session. The plenary session focuses on visions and imagining of feminist big data futures. The key question is: what would feminist big data, data studies and datavis look like? And as the organiser Helen K. put it in the abstract for the session: ‘How can and should feminists respond to the rise of big data? Given that critique of the assumed objectivity and neutrality of big data and related methods has a feminist history, feminist scholars are well-placed to respond to the problems that big data usher forth. One outcome of objectivity critique is a heavy reliance on qualitative methods in feminist research, yet it is precisely because of the types of problems that feminist scholarship has been so good at identifying that there is a need not just for feminist critiques of quantitative methods, data and assumptions of objectivity, but for feminism to do big data and data visualisation. In other words, we need feminist data studies which is active in creating, representing and communicating data. How do we move forward from critiques of data as not really objective, but cooked, to understanding how and why it matters to feminists and feminism? How do we respond to Haraway’s proposal that encoding and visualisation are inherently patriarchal projects? What might feminist big data, data studies and datavis look like?’

Thinking about self-tracking, wearables & biopedagogy

fitbitDelighted that the article I wrote with Kate O’Riordan (as part of our EU-funded EPINET project) on wearable sensors and fitness tracking has now just been published online in the academic journal Health Sociology Review  here. It is part of a special issue on self-tracking, edited by Deborah Lupton, and I can’t wait to read the cutting edge work of other colleagues in this same volume. The article is called ‘Training to self-care: fitness tracking, biopedagogy and the healthy consumer’ and it is  based on research around Fitbit, a wearable sensor device, through two complementary analytical approaches: auto-ethnography and media analysis. Drawing on the concept of biopedagogy, which describes the processes of learning and training bodies how to live, we focus on how users learn to self-care with wearable technologies through a series of micropractices that involve processes of mediation and the sharing of their own data via social networking. Our discussion is oriented towards four areas of analysis: data subjectivity and sociality; making meaning; time and productivity and brand identity. We articulate how these micropractices of knowing one’s body regulate the contemporary ‘fit’ and healthy subject, and mediate expertise about health, behaviour and data subjectivity.

You can download the article here http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14461242.2016.1184582

Feminism, hormones and the Quantified Self: Imagining data futures

I look forward to talking about feminism and data in the University of Leeds (School of Media and Communication) soon. This is work that will appear in a Chapter about reproductive rights, digital media and feminism in my forthcoming book, later this year.

March 23rd, 2016 | Time: 16:15 — 17:30

Media and Communication, University of Leeds

Room G.12, Clothworkers’ North Building.


Feminism, hormones and the Quantified Self: Imagining data futures

There is a proliferation of tracking apps today that can be used to monitor fertility and reproductive hormones (Lupton, 2015). Reproductive control has been a key issue for feminism, and women have always logged their data in some way; however, it is with digital technologies and smart phones that data collection carries a promise of significant life changes. 

Although the Quantified Self has been described to be mostly about ‘toys for boys’, smart, geeky, talented’ women involved in sensor hacking organise women-only Quantified Self meetups in the US, to discuss hormonal tracking. At the same time, projects such as the Hormone Project aim to bring together women who self-track, doctors and researchers, in order to influence innovation in biotech and personalized health. This paper examines such developments and asks how far data collection has the potential to make the voices of women heard, beyond the articulation of consumer demands about digital health. Placing my analysis within frameworks of gendered and reproductive labour and their centrality to global capitalism (Dickenson, 2007; Franklin and Lock, 2003; Thompson, 2005), I discuss how the material and semiotic intersect in the making of data and feminist futures.


my paper Quantifying the Self at XR2014

My paper Quantifying the Self: All these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data

Aristea Fotopoulou

at Crossroards in Cultural Studies in Tampere Finland is in

SESSIONS H Wednesday 15:45–17:15 H1 Permeable Boundaries: Bodies in Science, Medicine, and Culture

(Chair: Michelle Iwen, Arizona State University, United States).

Paper abstract

This paper examines the emerging culture of the Quantified Self movement, whose
practitioners undertake a range of practices of data collection, management and analysis, in order to produce knowledge about the self. The movement has been recently understood in terms of surveillance (Phillips) and the Panopticon (Bossewitch and Sinnreich). Drawing from fieldwork with San Francisco and London-based quantifiers, this paper focuses instead on what people do with the new technologies, what tracking means for them and how it gets embedded in their everyday lives. The analysis engages with media (Couldry, Hepp), sociological and anthropological work (Durkheim, Goffman) on rituals, to approach Quantified Self as a media culture that performs ritualistic reconstructions of the Self, and shows how the movement constantly reinvents itself and its position in existing social structures through the narratives that it produces and circulates in the media.

Panel Abstract

This panel will present papers that look at how science, medicine and culture construct,
regulate and/or challenge physical bodies and their borders. More specifically, we will
examine the problematic nature of a normalized “self”, complicated by issues of bodily
excretions and the prevalence of nonhuman biological material within the human body.
This concern for a human “self” is troubled in 18th century Enlightenment discourses of theinterior/exterior bodily boundary and issues of a gender binary, secreting organs, anddisturbances of mood. Moving the body into the 21st century, these same concerns over interior/exterior boundaries resurface in the narratives of bodies in outer space, as concerns about excretion and reproductive capacity unfold along gendered lin
es in biomedical research beyond the bounds of our planet. Finally, we will examine how the idea of a traditionally bounded “self” is potentially challenged by contemporary
immunology/microbiology and explore the subsequent consequences for health practices.