The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism

Forthcoming in Digital Culture & Society, special issue 'The Politics of Big Data' (2016)

11 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2016

See all articles by Stefania Milan

Stefania Milan

University of Amsterdam

Lonneke van der Velden

University of Amsterdam

Date Written: October 10, 2016


As datafication progressively invades all spheres of contemporary society, citizens grow increasingly aware of the critical role of information as the new fabric of social life. This awareness triggers new forms of civic engagement and political action that we term “data activism”. Data activism indicates the range of sociotechnical practices that interrogate the fundamental paradigm shift brought about by datafication. Combining Science and Technology Studies with Social Movement Studies, this theoretical article offers a foretaste of a research agenda on data activism. It foregrounds democratic agency vis-à-vis datafication, and unites under the same label ways of affirmative engagement with data (“proactive data activism”, e.g. data-based advocacy) and tactics of resistance to massive data collection (“reactive data activism”, e.g. encryption practices), understood as a continuum along which activists position and reposition themselves and their tactics. The article argues that data activism supports the emergence of novel epistemic cultures within the realm of civil society, making sense of data as a way of knowing the world and turning it into a point of intervention and generation of data countercultures. It offers the notion of data activism as a heuristic tool for the study of new forms of political participation and civil engagement in the age of datafication, and explores data activism as an evolving theoretical construct susceptible to contestation and revision.

Keywords: datafication, data activism, resistance, engagement, democratic agency, Social Movement Studies, Science and Technology Studies

Suggested Citation

Milan, Stefania and van der Velden, Lonneke, The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism (October 10, 2016). Forthcoming in Digital Culture & Society, special issue 'The Politics of Big Data' (2016), Available at SSRN:

Stefania Milan (Contact Author)

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Department of Media Studies
Turfdraagsterpad 9
Amsterdam, 1012 XT


Lonneke Van der Velden

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Spui 21
Amsterdam, 1018 WB

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