Week 3 Readings: Data Feminism

Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein is a readable and thorough entry into how data science needs feminism and how feminists and scholars can use data science to further their goals. Each chapter focuses on one of D’Ignazio and Klein’s seven principles of data feminism.

1. Examine Power

Data science is deeply influenced by unequal power structures, or matrices of domination. Readers are encouraged to ask, “Who?” when thinking about data collection and analysis: Who is doing data science? Who benefits from data science? And whose interests and goals are being served by data science?

By asking “who” questions, we can spot gaps in data collection and analysis and begin to fill those gaps.

2. Challenge Power

D’Ignazio and Klein offer four methods of challenging unjust data science:

  1. Collect: Compile counterdata.
  2. Analyze: Audit algorithms.
  3. Imagine: Imagine a future of co-liberation.
  4. Teach: Engage and empower people to use data science as a tool.

As part of their “imagine” method, the authors also advocate for a shift from data ethics, which tends to frame problems as the result of a few “bad apples” and technological glitches, to data justice, which acknowledges that injustice is structural.

Table 2.1 From data ethics to data justice

Concepts That Secure Power
Because they locate the source of the problem in individuals or technical systems
Understanding Algorithms

Concepts that Challenge Power
Because they acknowledge structural power differentials and work toward dismantling them
Understanding history, culture, and context
Table 2.1 presents principles of data ethics alongside alternative, parallel concepts of data justice (60).
Why is the shift from data ethics to data justice so radical?

3. Elevate Emotion and Embodiment

Data science is weighed down by the false binary of reason vs. emotion. As historians, though, we know that there is no such thing as a neutral perspective. Instead, the feminist approach to data science is to embrace emotion and affect as a valid type of data.

4. Rethink Binaries and Hierarchies

False binaries and unjust hierarchies lead to flawed classification systems that overlook or discriminate against certain groups. Problems with classification must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Ethical solutions might include adding categories to a classification system, making certain data categories optional, or avoiding gathering some types of data in the first place.

How data is presented is just as important as how it is categorized. Feminist approaches to data visualization, like Amanda Montañez’s infographic on gender and sex in the Scientific American, can challenge false binaries.

5. Embrace Pluralism

Traditional data science focuses on clarity and control, sometimes to the detriment of minoritized voices. Data cleaning is sometimes necessary to prepare data for computational analysis, but it can also enact epistemic violence, perpetuating unjust hierarchies by separating data from their context.

Feminist data scientists, on the other hand, embrace multiple perspectives. Focusing on team projects and community-driven work can give us better, more complete information than the work of a single individual.

What does embracing pluralism look like in digital/public history? What are the benefits? The challenges? Are there any situations in which we should reject pluralism?

6. Consider Context

Data is meaningless without context. In this chapter, D’Ignazio and Klein coin the term Big Dick Data to refer to “big data projects that are characterized by masculinist, totalizing fantasies of world domination as enacted through data capture and analysis” (151). Big Dick Data projects overstate their scope and importance and ignore essential context. These inaccuracies can in turn lead to massively erroneous reporting, like in this FiveThirtyEight article on kidnappings in Nigeria.

Data are never raw. They are inherently cooked by their sociopolitical and historical context, and that context is essential to accurate data collection, interpretation, and visualization. Institutions need to invest significant funding into documenting, restoring, and communicating context, especially in instances involving discrimination and inequity.

What might “big dick history” look like? Can you think of any examples?

7. Make Labor Visible

Much of the effort goes into data science is invisible labor, paid, underpaid, and unpaid. Data feminism requires that we make labor visible and always give credit where credit is due.

What are some ways labor can be hidden in academia and public history? How do we rectify this?


D’Ignazio and Klein’s data textbook is built on a foundation of Black feminism, an intersectional ideology that prioritizes humanity and process over profit. This is a great and easy intro into data science for humanities scholars and into feminist thought for data scientists. It’s a long read, but well worth the journey. In class, we’ll think about how we can apply these principles to digital history projects. Happy reading!

7 Replies to “Week 3 Readings: Data Feminism”

  1. Hey Jessica! I think you did a great job summarizing Data Feminism. Overall, these seven principles are really approachable and great for us to employ into our projects for the semester. I want to start a discussion around the 4th principle. With digital projects, and projects in general, it can be really easy to get lost into your original idea or topic without considering binaries or hierarchies. What are some questions that we could ask ourselves while we develop our projects for this course and future ones? How could we employ these questions before we begin working on a project?

    1. I think that’s a really good question! I don’t necessarily have a solid answer, but I do think that returning to some of D’Ignazio and Klein’s questions that Jessica so kindly stated for us might be a good place to start: Who is doing data science? Who benefits from data science? And whose interests and goals are being served by data science?

      I think that tailoring these questions to a specific project can assist us in the creation of a really excellent foundation, one that will anchor us as we continue to build our projects up (and hopefully prevent us from getting too lost in a topic). If anything, I think it will definitely make sure we are conscious of potential power imbalances.

      Taking this a step further, I also think that consulting stakeholders could also prove illuminating. Depending on what you hope to achieve with your project, stakeholders can effectively point you in the direction of the false hierarchies they have experienced. Definitely just a thought, but I was really fascinated with potential stakeholder and data science interactions.

      1. Hey Sam! Sorry I missed this. I think you’re right on the money – consulting stakeholders is the best way to make sure that we’re asking and answering these questions.

    2. Hi Joshua! Great questions. I think the most interesting historical questions are often ones that reject binaries – when you see a yes/no issue and ask what the “third way” might be, or when you completely dismantle the idea that there are “sides” at all. Those questions are especially good to ask when thinking about historical memory and public history, where we tend to be more focused on audience. I’d say a great way to fit them in before starting a project would be to workshop your argument with friends and classmates – ask them to take on the role of different constituents and stakeholders, and challenge each other on the answers you give.

  2. Hello Jessica! I enjoyed reading your post on Data Feminism. I think that all of the principles can in some way be applied to history, especially in areas where public history is concerned. One point that caught my eye that I may ask about in discussion is point three. According to your post, people who practice data feminism argue that emotions can be used as a valid type of data. I was wondering what this meant, and how it might be applied to historical research and data?

    1. Hi Bryce! One of the best examples of elevating emotion was the graph of U.S. gun deaths in chapter 3. It visualized not only the ages of gun violence victims, but the years of life that they lost. Data is so often assumed to be “objective,” but by only focusing on easily quantifiable things, we’re actually missing out on a lot of data. Joy, fear, awe, pain – it’s all data. Kim Gallon has written/talked about this issue a lot. If we want to be honest and open about our data, we have to include emotion.

      In terms of elevating emotion when doing history, I feel like this is something historians are actually pretty good at. Edward Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told, and Saidiya Hartman’s book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, are both pretty good examples of elevating emotion.

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