Dissident Data – a new blog series

Quick note from FoV:

Fields of View is thrilled to host ‘Dissident Data’ a new blog series by Dr. Niveditha Menon, who is a senior research advisor at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. It is an idea that has been brewing awhile, and without much more ado, here it is, Niveditha’s first post introducing the series.

A long time ago, when I was working in an interdisciplinary lab, we organised a workshop to showcase our work. To prepare for the workshop, I was to give a colleague a brief description of the project that I was working on at that time. I handed her a five-page document describing everything about the project. We had just started working together, so she found it prudent to keep her shock and dismay to herself. Later, when the workshop was over, we had a chat about how useless it was to give her a five-page document for an infographic that she was trying to create. What I needed to give her, she said, was a story. I replied – but I don’t know how to tell stories. She said that that’s what I have been doing any way — my research is a story about data.

Those of us who are researchers (and some of us who are not) have to contend with various forms of data. If I may be permitted to generalise, the quantitative amongst us typically think of numbers and figures and graphs when we think of data, and the qualitative think through narratives and themes. But underneath it all, what we are trying to convey is a story that we see in our data that we think is important to understand our world better. This blog series is about unpacking the story that is hidden in our data, be it the trials and tribulations of contradictions within our data, or the euphoria of finding something unexpected.

I come from a qualitative feminist sociological tradition, so I work with a particular framework of feminist and anthropological methodologies that does not treat data as abstract. For me, all data – whether quantitative or qualitative – are relational and are produced by the specific socio-cultural and economic contexts in which the questions are framed and the researcher is located.

My advisor once told me that data doesn’t speak. It is not an animate object to have its own language. It exists because I have caused it to exist. It is a thing shaped by me, and can speak to only that which I see or which I allow others to see. It is moulded by the nature of my questions and the tonal voice in which I have asked these questions. Many researchers do not subscribe to this contention. Yet, I am sure that they also have had to confront the fundamental questions around the nature of data: How is data produced? What are the rules related to data collection? What kind of data is necessary to make an argument? What is to be done when data misbehaves?

Of course, there are tomes written by researchers of all disciplines trying to answer these questions. We simply have to google ‘epistemology’ to engage with any of these authors. This blog series will not revisit these themes and debates, although it will heavily draw upon them. Instead, this data blog series will engage with the relationship between the production of data and the presentation of it. It is about the personal journey that researchers take with our data in our quest for a better understanding of the world and how it works.

The rationale for documenting such a process is two-fold: (1) to lay bare the difficult decisions, dilemmas, and contradictions of data that we all encounter in our working and daily lives, and (2) to engage with the fundamental role that researchers and non-researchers have in the process of producing, analysing, and representing data. It is, in some ways, a space to engage with the myriad ways we submit to the authority of data, and to self-reflect on the implications of this submission.

This tentative mandate, however, is subject to change, as the series evolves. But for the next few blogs, authors, broadly defined as those who are producers and conveyers of data, will be drawing from their own to tell a story of their relationship with data.

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